In October of 2004, a low budget horror flick you just might have heard of named “Saw” hit cinema screens across the globe and quickly became an overnight phenomenon. Not only did the film usher in the “torture porn” era of horror cinema, but it also launched the careers of two budding filmmakers from Australia, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, both of whom would find further success in the “Insidious” and “Conjuring” franchises. In recent years, the two would also make the jump into action filmmaking as well, with James Wan directing 2015’s “Furious 7” and the upcoming “Aquaman”, while Leigh Whannell would step into the director’s chair for the low-budget cocktail of sci-fi, action, and body-horror that is “Upgrade”!
Set in the not-too-distant future, “Upgrade” follows self-employed auto mechanic Grey Trace, played by Logan Marshall-Green, and his wife Asha, played by Melanie Vallejo, on what should be just another routine returning of a car to one of Grey’s clients.
Instead, the couple are viciously ambushed by a gang of sadistic street thugs, who kill Asha and leave Grey crippled and confined to a wheelchair. As Grey mourns his wife and tries to adjust to handicapped life, Grey’s client, a tech expert named Eron Keen, played by Harrison Gilbertson, approaches him with his latest invention, an A.I. codenamed “STEM”, (voiced by Simon Maiden) that grants Grey the ability to walk once more. With the help of the new, seemingly omniscient A.I. in his body, which further grants its host near-superhuman levels of endurance and fighting ability, Grey embarks on a quest to avenge the murder of his wife with the help of STEM.
One can quickly see Whannell’s influences in crafting “Upgrade” (which bore the working title of “STEM” during production) in films like “RoboCop”, “The Crow”, and the short-lived TV series “M.A.N.T.I.S.”. Here though, the writer-director has constructed a film that never feels overtly derivative, no small feat, given that the “man with superpowers granted by technological enhancements” premise is far from a new one.
Whannell also injects plenty of dark humor into the film and specifically into Grey’s partnership with STEM – the latter, a disembodied voice in the head of the protagonist, making decisions for both of them on a binary scale of logic and self-preservation, and the former, a man alternately horrified at the emotionless ease with which STEM destroys his enemies and thrilled at how far his body can now go beyond his original physical capabilities before misfortune attacked him.
What really stands out about “Upgrade” though is just how unique an approach Whannell takes to directing action. The film’s plentiful fight sequences are done in a style truly unique to this film with STEM turning our hero into a fighting machine (with the emphasis on “machine”). Grey dispatches his foes not with the athleticism of a classically trained martial artist, but with sharply articulated manoeuvres coming not from years’ of training but from internalized programming. Imagine the cybernetic movements of RoboCop applied to a martial arts battle and you have an idea of just how different an approach Whannell has taken to orchestrating the fight sequences of “Upgrade”.
Grey has more fun with his newfound abilities and how efficiently they enable him to track down his wife’s killers as the film progresses, but Whannell shows he hasn’t run out of tricks yet when Grey and STEM begin to disagree over the latter’s cold, calculated approach to their mission. As the film reaches its climax, following several outstanding fight and chase sequences with the film’s signature techno-spin, Grey eventually finds himself trying to hold STEM back from just how much he’s dictating how their vendetta should be carried out. True to his horror movie roots, Whannell blindsides us with a twist ending that re-contextualizes everything we saw before. This gives a new, layered depth to the underlying theme of the action sequences we’d previously thrilled to throughout the film that saw STEM in control of the moves with his human host simply along for the ride.
With a summer movie season filled with cosmic scale threats and intergalactic adventures, “Upgrade” brings it down to Earth with a smaller scale sci-fi thriller that astonishes the viewer with dynamic action sequences that come amidst a cautionary tale about the dark side of technology. As the second half of the “Saw” duo to make the leap from horror to action, Leigh Whannell displays his versatility as a storyteller who continues to do a lot with a little. For action lovers, “Upgrade” lives up to its title with an impressively original approach to martial arts action intertwined with technological advancements and, um, upgrades – advancements that, like this year’s earlier hit “Ready Player One”, seem frankly close to being a reality a decade or two hence!
Seen “Upgrade” yet, what are your thoughts on the fights in the film? What are some of your fave FUsions of sci-fi and martial arts? Let us know in the comments below, join in the conversation and share this on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter & Instagram. (Keep your FUsion mode ON with KFK’s other reviews as well!)