Ultraviolent "Upgrade" Sputters To Intriguing Conclusion

There’s an egalitarianism in the griminess of Leigh Whannell’s “Upgrade;” a sense of cinematic populism in its tussle with the status quo of lofty science fiction. Its meat-and-potatoes story of a broken man upgraded into a killing machine evokes a time when “RoboCop” was thinking-man’s sci-fi, decades before Christopher Nolan mounted “Interstellar” or Alex Garland penned “Ex Machina.”

But here, in 2018, Whannell’s ugly violence doesn’t work as satire; his ludicrously literal screenplay doesn’t function as anything more than John Carpenter lite. The film’s nobility begins and ends with its low budget and schlocky thrills, occasioning a dumber version of Adam Wingard’s similar, superior “The Guest.”

Although actor Logan Marshall-Green (“Prometheus”) has proven himself anything but a movie star, here he acquits himself reasonably well as Grey Trace, a mechanic living in the not-too-distant future. His own future is torn away by a group of callous thugs. A car accident triggered by a malfunctioning autopilot system leaves Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) sitting ducks in a nasty part of town; not a minute later, Grey is left paralyzed, Asha dead.

One of Grey’s clients, coincidentally a tech savant, offers to mend our grieving protagonist. To not just let him walk again, but to make history as the first recipient of STEM: an insect-sized piece of technology that, once implanted, essentially makes the beneficiary invincible.

Ultimately Grey’s thirst for revenge makes him a dangerous bedfellow for STEM. The tech soon reveals itself as a not-exactly-disembodied voice – one that only its host can hear – capable of both intelligent thought and controlling all systems of the human body. At first STEM acts with Grey’s permission, employing his body impeccably and thrillingly in service of beating bad guys to a pulp. This is where the movie thrives, finding sparks of humor in its frenetic action scenes.

But once STEM begins to turn on our hero, the pic reverts to overly grim gore pic with only a fizzy performance from Benedict Hardie as the villainous android Fisk to cling to. The violence becomes more and more extreme for its own sake, entirely bereft of subext as Whannell’s script clangs forward to its twisty conclusion.

The climax is intriguing in its potential for a sequel, but is of no real use here. It leaves us hanging, teasing a more substantial story than the one we’ve paid to see.

Leigh Whannell’s origins in the “Saw” and “Insidious” series suggest more knowing fun than is actually served up in “Upgrade.” It owes its entire self to a medley of exploitative man-or-machine thrillers, bringing precious little to the table. 2014’s divisive, underrated “RoboCop” remake knew it had to evolve from its roots. “Upgrade” is content to sink down into those roots, slouching its way through 95 minutes peppered with maybe ten minutes of pleasure.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: June 1, 2018
Studio: Blumhouse Tilt
Director: Leigh Whannell
Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Rosco Campbell, Scott Michael Foster, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, grisly images, and language)