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What does Pacific Rim: Uprising, Peter Rabbit, Tomb Raider, Proud Mary, The Titan, Action Point, Gringo, The Outsider, Mute, and A Futile and Stupid Gesture have in common? These are just a handful of films I have seen this year, where I felt like we were supposed to get one kind of film, but either through bad marketing, or simply bad filmmaking, we didn’t get them. Some came closer than others to giving us what we wanted, but they all failed at certain levels. I decided to talk about a film that not only gives us what we want, but also more. The film in question is Upgrade, directed by Leigh Whannell.
The story revolves around a stay-at-home mechanic named Grey Trace, played by Logan Marshall-Green. He does custom car requests while his wife, Asha, played by Melanie Vallejo, works for a high-tech company known as Cobolt. After taking a refurbished car to a client named Eron Keen, they get ambushed by a group of hitmen that leave Grey a quadriplegic and Asha dead. After moping around as a quadriplegic, Grey gets an offer from his last client, Eron Keen, played by Harrrison Gilbertson, to stick a highly advanced AI chip named STEM into the back of Grey’s neck that will help him walk again. After getting used to walking, Grey begins to hear the chip talking to him, and is voiced by Simon Maiden. He offers Grey the opportunity to find these hitmen and take them down, hoping to solve the mystery of who sent them, and why they killed his wife.
When you first see the trailer, it looks like it’s going to be a hyper-violent sci-fi romp. Well, thankfully, while they do show most of the action scenes for probably marketing reasons, it’s so much fun! You know how The Revenant was shot to make you follow the action up close to make you feel like you were there? Upgrade does that in a similar way. Each time Grey lets STEM take over, the camera turns robotic and wonky, but not in a messy or amateur-hour sort of way. STEM essentially controls Grey like a puppet, so his movements match that whenever the action scenes decide to kick in. It makes for some of the best action that’s not from a superhero movie in 2018. It’s surprisingly gory, but that’s part of the fun. It’s brutal, in your face, and hugely entertaining to watch. Definitely don’t watch this if you get turned off by hyper-violence, but keep chugging along if you do! To make this not just a pulp violent schlockfest, the story that tackles the commentary about how far will we let technology go, and the overreliance of said technology, does lead to a really captivating mystery as to who sent the hitmen after Grey and his wife. I wasn’t really expecting that, because I was ready to succumb to the gory ride, but was glad to see there was more under the hood. It turns what you would find in a direct-to-video bargain bin from the 80s and 90s, into a rather captivating sci-fi thriller. It’s a fairly focused story that keeps you invested in Grey and his mission, and while it does sort of turn into a Black Mirror episode by the end, I loved it. Logan Marshall-Green does a great job at portraying a slightly jaded, but grounded individual, and brings a lot of great deliveries to the film’s nice splash of dark comedy. I mean, how would you act for the first time you let a highly advanced AI chip control your body without your control, and you kept seeing yourself do all of these amazing action film set-piece movements?
With all that said, I do have one major problem with the film, and it’s the fact that out of 90 or so minutes, it takes up to 20 minutes to get to the stuff people want. Granted, the stuff they do show beforehand gets you invested into its story, but you wish that they either cut that part down a bit, or made the movie longer. While the action and story was great, I was always itching for one more action sequence. Just something more, but knowing how this is a partly Blumhouse-produced film, the budget wasn’t all that big, and they could only do so many action scenes. It just would have been nice, since the film repeats its structure after Grey gets STEM, and I personally felt like they could have added another action scene, due to how fun all of the action is. It makes you wonder what they could do with a sequel or spiritual successor to this film, if they set it up more in terms of John Wick Part 2’s pacing.
Even despite all that, I found Upgrade to be one of 2018’s best surprises. It tackles its grimy sci-fi look perfectly, the action is some of 2018’s best, and the body-horror cybernetics that many of the characters have are effective. I wish it had a bit more action, and we got to the blood and grunge faster, but if you, for some reason, haven’t been able to see this film yet, definitely go buy it right now. I mean, if you are into this type of film. It’s a gory, bloody, pulpy, darkly comedic, and action-heavy ride that definitely wants me to yell “Play it Again, Cam!”