To be frank, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more surprised by the quality of a film than I was with Upgrade.
Looking back, I remember seeing the commercial and being thoroughly unimpressed. I remember thinking that it looked like generic revenge movie #498 where the protagonist gains superpowers and takes vengeance on those that wronged him while having a Blade Runner knockoff setting. The advertising, coupled with a paltry (by Hollywood standards) 5 million dollar budget, had me convinced this movie was just another straight to video waste of time, in the vein of the 6th movie in the Leprechaun franchise.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Upgrade falls into some odd blend of 2001, Black Mirror, and Death Wish, and even into what some would categorize as horror, and does it all remarkably effectively. The central idea of the plot is that a man becomes a quadriplegic, and is given a massive technological “Upgrade” by a corporate technology maven, and sets about finding the people that paralyzed him and killed his wife. There will be no spoilers here, but suffice it to say there is more here than meets the eye, and things get out of hand very quickly. I am surprised how much I enjoyed the plot, given that the writer, Leigh Whannell, has written two horror franchises that I’ve never been a fan of: Saw and Insidious, which also serves to explain some of the horror elements within Upgrade. One of the most impressive feats this movie manages to pull off is looking so plausibly futuristic on a budget of next to nothing. The film looks incredible and has a cast that is up to the task of delivering a riveting performance, which brings me to one of my favorite parts: The performance of Logan Marshall-Green.
Upon viewing the film, I knew I recognized him from somewhere, and a quick IMDB reference revealed he was the incredibly badass gunslinger in the TV show Damnation, and also utterly unrecognizable in 2005’s The Invitation (also worth a watch). He pulls off an incredible performance as the out of place, off the grid, gearhead who works on classic cars, but it’s his performance once he receives the upgrade that is most impressive. At specific points in the film, the Artificial Intelligence controls his body, while he controls his head and dialogue. It’s amazing watching his body engaged in these incredible fight scenes, while his head and voice are acting entirely differently. Great work from the man some refer to as “knockoff Tom Hardy,” given how similar the two men look.
I will go ahead and issue a bold statement: Upgrade is the best sci-fi movie I’ve seen since 2009’s dual masterpieces, Moon and District 9 (sorry Interstellar, Arrival, and Gravity fans). I might even go so far as to place it in the top 10 science fiction movies of the 2000’s, alongside classics like Minority Report, Wall-E, AI, and the films mentioned above. Upgrade delivers on a theme Black Mirror has been accomplishing expertly: Showing us an entirely plausible, negative vision of the near future that comes about due to technological advancement on things like self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, drones, cybernetics, and virtual reality. These things, in most cases, are right around the corner, that many of us will see in our lifetime, yet we don’t always ponder the ramifications of them being subverted or hacked, and the results can be profoundly disturbing, as evidenced by this film. Upgrade is a prime example of a great concept, executed on flawlessly, and is an exemplar of what can be done on a budget that makes a shoestring look vast. The right script, idea, writer, cast, and effects all blend into a cohesive whole that I have no doubt I will watch again and is sure to become a modern science fiction classic.
What then are the negatives? To be perfectly honest, I have to stretch into the more hypothetical territory to find any negative. Theoretically, it could have looked better and more expansive with a bigger budget, but that says nothing about telling a better story. I can’t think of one scene or actor I’d swap out, nor would I care to dilute it by adding to its razor-sharp 1-hour 40-minute runtime. There seems to quite the gulf between critics and the average viewer; critics obsess over its B-movie budget and roots, as though it isn’t sufficiently pretentious enough, while still admitting it looks tremendous and Logan Marshall delivers a wonderful acting job. They also give it no credit whatsoever for its cultural commentary on the future and our relationship with technology, which is odd given how critics salivate over every low budget indie coming-of-age story. The critical reception reminds me of how the Death Wish remake was panned before anyone saw it, and was branded an “alt-right” fantasy despite Bruce Willis saving the lives of multiple minorities. These days, if your film doesn’t feature biting social justice commentary and a hyperdiverse cast, it might as well be Nazi propaganda to the critical pool that’s infested with leftists.
In the end, if one has even the slightest preference for either horror or sci-fi, then Upgrade is required viewing.
Do yourself a favor, and “Upgrade” your science fiction.
Score: 9/10 - Classic
Liberal bullshit meter: 0/10
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Steve is the author of Forging the Iron Mind, and is the founder and CEO of Americana Prime.