Why Upgrade is one of last year’s best sci-fi offerings

Leigh Whannell’s body horror actioner is a stunning mix of cerebral and exploitation genre cinema

2018 had more than its fair share of ideas-rich genre films. Among the likes of Annihilation and A Quiet Place, another film stood out from the pack. Although Australian filmmaker Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade was a relatively low budget production– it’s measly $5m budget would barely cover the costs of a small stash of Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlets  – because of the imaginatively-staged execution of the film’s high-concept premise, it certainly aspires to be bigger and bolder.

Logan Marshall-Green as hapless mechanic turned AI host, Grey Trace

Upgrade is a film which in the wrong hands could have easily descended into schlocky nineties cyber thriller territory, but Whannell – a creative veteran of the Saw series, who only made his directorial debut back in 2015 with Insidious: Chapter 3 – shows real confidence in his abilities as a storyteller, and manages to stretch his limited funds, getting considerable bang for modest bucks. His story of a widowed mechanic in the near future, whose paralysed body is given a new lease of life – and added power-up – via the implant of an AI chip called STEM, ticks all the boxes for genre fans. There are obvious shades of RoboCop here, coupled with smatterings of Cronenbergian body horror, as well as some judiciously placed moments of gore. The enhanced physical and mental state of the protagonist, whose wonderfully-choreographed movements have a slickness and synchronisation not dissimilar to how a woke Neo navigates himself within the Matrix.

Happier times for Grey and his doomed wife Asha (played by Melanie Vallejo)

All of this could have resulted in a tired and derivative work, but  Whannell keeps things exciting and engaging, with his leading man Logan Marshall-Green truly excelling in the central role. Long joked about as a sub-Tom Hardy lookalike, this is a star-making turn for the performer, who has been tottering around the fringes of big-budget genre cinema for a few years, showing up in the likes of Prometheus and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Not only is he required to carry the film, but he also has to bridge that gap for the audiences between mild-mannered everyman to a vengeful man-machine hybrid, which he pulls off with aplomb, finding the right balance of humanity and vulnerability amongst the carnage.

Grey’s upgraded body in full-on kill mode

Upgrade’s exploration of AI tech and how we grow ever closer to that convergence of the synthetic and human is a provocative hypothesis, and the film ultimately manages to offer up a cerebral sci-fi wrapped in a violent, audience-pleasing actioner. Given that mix, it might come as no surprise to learn that Blumhouse Productions is one of the companies behind the film. Their brand of modern B-movies with substance is evident throughout Upgrade, and although the film didn’t ignite the box office in the same way as something like Get Out did, Upgrade will have long afterlife on the small screen, like many of its video shop genre forefathers did those years back.

Watch Upgrade on CHILI

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