Blumhouse Productions have become synonymous with genre film and a powerhouse studio in its own right, particularly in revitalising the low budget horror genre (Get Out, Paranormal Activity, Insidious). Over the past few years it’s nice to see them broadening their horizons into other genre pieces, with Upgrade representing one of their occasional tilts into that intersection of science fiction and horror. This is no sweeping big budget space opera, but rather a grim and gritty look on the effects of technology, combined with action and more than a little body horror.
When his wife is murdered, and he is left a quadriplegic by the attack, Trace Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) elects to undergo an experimental procedure to enable him to walk again. This involves having cutting edge technology planted in his spinal column to act as the severed link. With the STEM system granting him the ability to move again Grey attempts to rebuild his life, but a voice inside his head claiming to be STEM (Simon Maiden), prompts him to seek revenge on the cyber-augmented individuals that killed his wife.
This is a lurid and pulpy take on the cyberpunk genre, but with a sense of intelligence underlying it. Upgrade has a bit to say about humanity relinquishing control to technological innovations in exchange for ease. It’s the core of the Faustian deal that Trace makes with STEM, and although it’s motivated by justifiable thoughts of revenge, it results in a rampage that would make a Terminator grin. That message never overwhelms the action packed and stylishly executed mayhem on screen, but it’s nice to know that there is something a little deeper there, if required.
And Upgrade really is a wondrous mayhem when it gets going. Director Leigh Whannell (one of the creators behind the Saw and Insidious franchise) brings an incredible sense of style to the whole film, but it really shines through in those action sequences. The camera cavorts in unison with STEM’s fluid movements, giving viewers a unique take on the action. This is aided by the physicality of Logan Marshall-Green’s performance, bringing a consistent rigidity to his stance, and a swivel like motion to his movements. Heck, he even does the Robert Patrick (Terminator 2) run – one of numerous references to the pop culture that inspired Upgrade (from The Six-Million Dollar Man, to Syd Mead’s Blade Runner designs). Marshall-Green also manages to bring a human warmth to the role, not making it a one dimensional performance. Through this Upgrade manages to transition between humour, tragedy, and gore with barely a slackening of pace.
This is a bloody and violent action take on the cyberpunk genre that is immensely satisfying. Upgrade feels like a call back to those days when American cyberpunk intersected with Hong Kong action cinema eventually producing hybrids like The Matrix. Upgrade is a lot more street level than the Wachowski Sisters’ opus, never afraid of getting down and dirty, but like all the best cyberpunk films has something deeper and more philosophical at its core. The result is exactly the film it needs to be, and a successful step from Blumhouse Productions into the realm of science fiction.