- Written and directed by: Leigh Whannell
- Starring: Logan Marshall-Green and the disembodied voice of Simon Maiden
- Classification: 18A; 100 minutes
Although the situation was quickly rectified – and with great apology – walking into a theatre for an early morning screening of Upgrade the other day while it was still filled with garbage from the previous night’s show felt, well … appropriate.
Leigh Whannell’s new film is exactly the kind of pure trash that feels suited to spaces that are dirty, neglected, a little bit worse for wear. But this is no insult. Just as the multiplex contains multitudes, there will always be room at the movies for grimy genre sleaze. When executed well. And Upgrade – a no-nonsense thriller that is also entirely nonsense – takes its execution very, very seriously.
In a near-future where driverless cars are elite status symbols and most every human walks around with some sort of digital augmentation device on their body, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is a defiantly odd man out. The mechanic and devoted husband is introduced to us while he lovingly restores an old car, vinyl records playing in the background, for goodness sake. It is only a matter of time until this man’s analog world turns digital, and in the most horrific means possible.
After his wife’s self-driving car is hijacked by thugs, leaving Grey a quadriplegic and the love of his life dead, our hero is offered a choice. Thanks to a mysterious tech mogul who is equal parts Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk (he’s named Eron), Grey is gifted the power of STEM technology: a tiny computer chip that’s implanted in his spine, and which allows him to regain control of his body.
STEM also comes equipped, though, with the means to hijack Grey’s limbs, and a rather sociopathic artificial intelligence (voiced by Simon Maiden) that urges Grey to find his wife’s killers, and eliminate them with extreme prejudice.
What could have been a so-so episode of Black Mirror is delivered with bloody glee by Whannell, an old hand in the horror world thanks to his work on the Saw and Insidious films. But where those franchises relied on either tormenting or spooking its audiences, to increasingly diminishing effect, Upgrade only wants to have great, gory fun.
Borrowing some energetic and often completely bonkers camera tricks from his Saw colleague James Wan, Whannell treats Upgrade like the world’s most dangerous roller-coaster – all transparent buildup and then steep, hellishly fun drops. STEM doesn’t just kill its enemies, it eviscerates them – all while Grey, and the audience, look on with slack-jawed astonishment.
Upgrade, which is only now receiving a Canadian release four weeks after its U.S. debut, is being hailed by some American critics as a beacon of originality in a summer season dominated by four-quadrant-friendly retreads and rehashes. That is generous – Upgrade may not be based on a comic book or other intellectual property, but its DNA is equal parts RoboCop and David Cronenberg, Death Wish and Steve Austin. Its body horror is extreme and its action propulsive, but it is far from revolutionary.
But not every trip to the theatre needs to be an act of rebellion. Now and then, you just want to feel dirty.