Revenge-story films tend to keep things simple, one traumatic experience at the beginning of the movie and then a gore fest follows. When executed right, we get entertaining and beautiful films like John Wick or Kill Bill, but we also have some horrendous examples like the recent Death Wish or the original Punisher. Infusing science fiction into the revenge genre is a bold move, as you’re adding incredible complexity to a genre that tends to avoid it.
Upgrade is director/writer Leigh Whannell’s second film (after the bland Insidious: Chapter 3), and follows a Luddite mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall Green) in the near future were technology has grown much more automated. A group of men ambush Grey leaving him a quadriplegic and murder his wife (Linda Cropper). Grey is then equipped with a chip in his spine that gives him control of his body again, but with a computerized voice in his head that can enhance all his physical interactions.
What follows is the generic revenge plot; Grey hunts down his killers one by one after continued incompetence from the police. But the film surprised me when it decided to go beyond the comfort of its genre, to explore and revel in the sci-fi world it created. Whannell was clearly intrigued by his own imagination at creating a world where guns can be implanted inside human arms, autonomous cars are the norm, and your kitchen cooks for you. The production design goes all out at creating this world so that we’re more intrigued by the surrounding aspects than in the story itself; all this while keeping under a budget of $5 million.
The film delves into the questions and dangers of autonomous technology, something I don’t think any of the movie’s audience was expecting. Upgrade turns out to be a bland Black Mirror episode by way of some Tarantino violence. Whannell makes his film look beautiful too; hooking up the camera to his actor during action sequences so that the rooms swirl around while Grey seems to remain static. Marshall Green’s performance is crucial for this film, as he is our window into the film world’s technology and the novelties of his abilities. The actor handles the role with an honesty and anxiety that usually would fall into comedy, but which here strike a balance that bring a relatability of his character to the audience.
In the end I was pleasantly surprised by Upgrade. Don’t be fooled by the sci-fi analysis, the film is still a by-the-numbers revenge story; but the subgenre adds a flavor that makes this film stand out amongst the rest; it has all the makings of a cult film. The subsequent execution and solid acting prove the film to be a valuable addition to its genre.