Every Tuesday, I will be reviewing an horror film, and this week is 2018’s Upgrade.
Upgrade is a highly under-seen and underrated horror gem. The film is the directorial debut of Leigh Wannell, who has recently gone on to helm the recent horror blockbuster, The Invisible Man, one of the best horror films of recent years. Upgrade came out in 2018, and received very moderate critical acclaim and box office success. It does, however, feel like it has remnants of a cult classic all over it.
The film follows Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), an old-fashioned man and technophobe, who is married to the beautiful, Asha (Melanie Vallejo). The two suffer an car accident and attack from a gang, of which Grey suffers paralysis, and Asha loses her life. In the aftermath, Grey meets a millionaire, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who repairs his mobility using a STEM implant. However, the STEM implant speaks to Grey in his mind. Together, the two of them attempt to get revenge on those who wronged him.
As you can tell from the general premise, the film is a bit of a retelling of the 80s film, Robocop, in how it is a tale of our leading hero getting revenge, and rebuilding himself with robotic parts. The film is also a great companion piece to Venom, which came out the same year, in how the central character talks to a voice in his head which he persuades him to give in to his darkest desires.
Being a Robocop-Venom hybrid is an odd and bizarre mixture, but for the most part, it really works. The film is an efficient and entertaining thriller, that plays out like a bit of a B-movie. When the movie is most interesting, however, it when the film explores it’s more bizarre, strange, and sometimes, even darkly humorous elements.
Around the time that Grey starts getting revenge, the film really finds it’s footing. In one of the film’s most striking sequences, we see Grey fighting with one of gang members who attacked him, and he lets STEM take “control” of his body. The result of this is some wonderful physical comedy, that is really effective. However, out of nowhere, this sequence ends on a unprecedented and shocking moment of gory violence. This bonkers mix of physical comedy, dark humour and gory body horror is startling and feels very original. The end result is supremely entertaining.
There is another sequence like this one, where this time, Grey fights off against a gang, headed by another member of the gang who wronged him. Much like the previous sequence, it blends physical comedy, dark humour and strong, bloody violence, but just on a bigger and bloodier canvas. I mean, it loses a bit of it’s impact on doing it for a second time, but it still works pretty well.
Other than this, however, the central premise and plot is fairly straightforward, but effective. Our leading hero dealing with life after his wife died, and learning how to use his new body is the film’s emotional journey, and his quest for revenge is simple, but really works. Marshall-Green also makes a very good lead, even if does look strikingly like Tom Hardy.
However, there are some moments that don’t quite work. This includes the police character, Det. Cortez (played by Betty Gabriel), who is investigating Gray’s wife’s murder. This character is a rather unnecessary addition to the cast – she never gets fully fleshed out, or gets used properly. It’s a shame because Gabriel is a brilliant actress, having made a name for herself for her iconic supporting role in 2017’s Get Out.
The film also loses a bit of steam in the last act. In particular, there is a car chase scene that is rather unnecessary. Also, there is a “twist” at the end, that feels extremely obvious, and I guessed it easily. However, there is a second twist some after this, that is feels a lot more original and shocking, even if it does make it overly complicated. The actual ending, itself, is also quite effective, as well. It also echoes of the end of Inception in it’s ambiguous ending for our lead character.
The whole episode feels as whole it could of been an extended episode of Black Mirror in it’s satirical commentary of technology. However, that is not an insult – Black Mirror is brilliant, of course. The insane levels of violence and black humour make it just stand out from it’s crowded number of influences.
Wannell is a real filmmaker to watch in the future. His newest film, The Invisible Man was oh so great, and his debut feature may not be as polished, but it’s still a great, entertaining and striking piece of work. I can’t wait to see where he goes from here.