On the surface, Upgrade seems like a run-of-the-mill revenge thriller with just enough science fiction to broaden its appeal. The bones are certainly there. A strong jawed man's man is forced to witness the demise of a loved one and is presented with a unique chance to bring the fight to those responsible. We've seen it a hundred times probably just in the last few months. However, Upgrade manages to pull just enough punches to be the revenge thriller it wants to be. Leigh Whannell's film successfully installs fresh 1's and 0's to be a clever riff on an old school style, offering a futuristic Frankenstein twist for our tech obsessed society.
Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation, Prometheus) plays Grey Trace who, as mentioned, is forced to watch a group of men assassinate his wife, an attack that leaves him paralyzed. Thrust into deep depression with no will to live, he's given a chance to be the guinea pig for a socially awkward medical genius who has developed a chip called "Stem" that will bridge the gap in Grey's spine and allow him to move. The procedure comes with the stipulation that he keeps it a secret from everyone. Unbeknownst to Grey, Stem also has the ability to speak (though no one else can hear it), nudging Grey into becoming an amateur vigilante focused on avenging his wife.
Leigh Whannell smartly uses the revenge aspect to ease the audience into the world of Upgrade. The setting is a seemingly near and gritty future of self-driving cars and police drones that record on-going crimes while reading implanted chips containing one's identity (that criminals hack to avoid being ID'd). It's not a particularly far fetched future, but there's just enough budget to give glimpses of technological innovation and architecture that disappears within the back alley beatdowns. The tiny details of recognizable technology and commentary on our society's obsession with technology give Whannel's film a needed sense of depth that compliments the overarching plot.
While Marshall-Green ultimately sells the interior and physical conflict between his character and Stem, it is a pleasant surprise that Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden) emerges as much a character in the film as anyone else. Herein lies the unbridled fun and infectious sci-fi insanity that drives the heart of Upgrade. Grey tracks down and battles generic baddies with the end goal of getting to the big boss who himself is an amalgamation created from a villain checklist-all purposeful so that the audience doesn't ever see the "man behind the curtain". This leads to a climax that is so gloriously cheesy and perfect sci-fi schlock that it's only natural to resist it's ridiculousness prior to just letting it meld into your soul and synapses.
Upgrade is not so much a film looking to imbue a sense of catharsis. No, mostly it's just a chip-on-its-shoulder bone crunching sci-fi thriller with just enough human emotion to qualify it as not having been cooked up by a sentient Hollywood robot. Blumhouse's chokehold on low budget-driven genre pieces tightens once again, though Upgrade should factor in as one of the more clever and original entries on that particular totem pole.