In its opening moments, you would be forgiven for expecting Upgrade, a bloody new thriller, to be some kind brutal science fiction art film. That’s because the filmmakers reference one of the great works of 20th Century science fiction and art film — François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. Rather than beginning with the standard credit sequence (or omitting it entirely, as many thrillers are wont to do), Upgrade’s credits are spoken aloud over a shifting, three-dimensional waveform display. The emotionless male voice of Truffaut’s film is replaced by a faux-emoting, robotic female voice; it’s a striking, attention-grabbing sequence, one that primes the audience to expect a film of ideas that examines The Way We Live Now. It’s an act of misdirection though, as writer and director Leigh Whannell has no interest in those bigger issues — he’s just here to make a gory revenge thriller. And at that, he mostly succeeds.
The year is never stated, but it’s safe to assume that Upgrade takes place somewhere in the near future. Logan Marshall-Green (a semi-professional Tom Hardy doppelganger) plays Grey Trace, a curmudgeonly mechanic who tunes up old muscle cars while his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), is at work for a rising robotics firm. They live in an electronically controlled home that can cook their meals and do most of their chores, but Grey distrusts the robotic helpers, preferring to do things himself. When his wife suggests ordering a pizza, he counters by suggesting they make a pizza.
We’re being led to think the movie might become a cautionary tale of an overly mechanized society, but it quickly reveals itself to be a simple — if powerful — revenge thriller. As Grey and Asha drive home one evening, their automated car malfunctions, speeding up until it crashes. A gang of masked bandits are waiting nearby, ready to exact mayhem. They brutally murder Asha and sever Grey’s spine, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. He is forced to watch helplessly as she sputters her last breath.
Grey’s recovery is aided by ubiquitous robotic and electronic helpers, but they do little to lessen the impact of his trauma. The only relief comes in the form of wealthy inventor Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who previously bought a souped-up muscle car from Grey. He has created an almost insectoid-like chip called Stem that is capable of restoring sensation and motion to limbs. He also promises that it can do far more than just allow Grey to walk again, which is soon put on display. In a funny scene that pokes fun at science fiction films where characters tell video screens to endless enhance an image, Stem is able to identify one of Grey’s attackers from surveillance drone footage from the night of Asha’s murder. The little chip in the back of his neck has other surprises in hand, most of which will come in handy as Grey switches into vigilante mode and begins to hunt down his wife’s killers one by one.
Whannell came to prominence writing horror films, including the first few Saw movies, and his eye for violence makes Upgrade particularly affecting.
Up to this point, Whannell has created an intriguing bit of social commentary. His eye for class is surprisingly acute. Although Grey prefers to live in an analogue world, his wife’s wealth gives him the option to eschew those comforts. Others, including the assassins he hunts down, don’t have the means to swear off the same luxuries; they live in tiny homes little different from what one would find in a poor neighborhood right now. Whannell might have explored this vein of social critique more, but instead he diverts all his energies toward making a grindhouse exploitation film. An easy heuristic for gauging your enjoyment of Upgrade is by examining where you rank the first Mad Max film. I consider it the most fun of the tetralogy, even if it’s not the most technically accomplished or ambitious, and Whannell’s film is quite open in its admiration. His future world isn’t quite on the edge of collapse, unlike Mad Max, but it’s not hard to imagine rampant inequality and unchecked technological developments threatening civilization. (In another nod to Mad Max, the film was shot in Australia, though it stands in for a featureless, post-industrial America.)
Like that Aussie classic, considerations of the state of the world fall to the background once the hero’s need for vengeance kicks in. Marshall-Green is not the most convincing or compelling actor — he particularly struggles in his moments of despair over his lost wife — but he effectively conveys the fury of a man looking for revenge. His comic timing is also spot on during the beginning phases. Even though his quest for blood becomes increasingly dark, the early chapters are marked by a witty repartee between him and Stem, which is able to speak to him internally. Simon Maiden does his best impression of Douglas Rains’ HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and his unfamiliarity with human behaviors provides some necessary comic relief.
In between those short bursts of humor, Upgrade is largely blood-spattered and gory. Whannell came to prominence writing horror films, including the first few Saw movies, and his eye for violence makes Upgrade particularly affecting. Unfortunately, Whannell’s devotion to blood and guts overshadows the emotional content of this film. Vallejo is given little screen time as Asha, and we don’t learn a single thing about what sparked the couple’s relationship or the depths of their love; she’s merely a device to spur on Grey’s blood lust. Whannell isn’t alone on this — the classic exploitation films he’s referencing do exactly the same thing. But his film exists in a different time, with different obligations; the disposable wife doesn’t play as effectively as it once did.
Perhaps it was destined that Upgrade would always have these faults. The best ‘70s revenge thrillers are now considered classics more for their shocking impact and cultural documentation than for their actual quality. Upgrade doesn’t have quite the same impact or import, but it’s a hell of a thriller, which is good enough.