There’s a point about halfway through the new sci-fi/action flick Upgrade, at which I was watching yet another fast-paced, close-quarters fight scene between some bad guys and our electronically modified hero—the latter moving somehow exactly like a person puppeteered by a computer chip—when suddenly realized I didn’t care if he won or not. I knew full well that he would, as he’d exhibited almost no trouble doing so up to that point. I feel like I should have cared; I was certainly supposed to. But the battle between the main character’s aversion to violence and his desire to let the chip enact vengeance isn’t all that engaging, so why should a punch-’em-up be any different?
Upgrade comes to us from Leigh Whannell, the writer of genre staples Saw and Insidious, and some other outings like Dead Silence and Cooties. This is Whannell’s second outing as director following 2015’s Insidious: Chapter 3, and Upgrade certainly feels self-assured in its visuals for a movie made on the kind of micro-budgets Blumhouse’s BH Tilt imprint is known for distributing. And I’ll certainly say Upgrade‘s downfall isn’t its visual style or realization of a near-future.
Logan Marshall-Green plays Grey Trace, an analog guy in a decidedly digital world. He works on old muscle cars and restores them for rich collectors, while his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) makes all the money working for some software company. After delivering a car to Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), the young and decidedly off-putting robotics magnate, Grey and Asha are attacked by a group of thugs, leaving Asha dead and Grey paralyzed from the neck down.
On the brink of giving up all hope, Eron approaches Grey about an untested technology that could allow him to walk again. It’s a chip that connects the messages from the brain to the rest of his body, but with one catch: the chip has a mind of its own. Stem, as the chip calls itself, becomes Grey’s inner voice and has the ability to take over the use of Grey’s body as necessary in the search for his attackers. This leads to some impressive fight scenes in which Grey has no idea what’s happening but his body is perfectly executing complex fight choreography.
As I said, the premise is not a bad one at all, but Upgrade can’t decide on a tone. Most of the time it feels like it’s striving for gripping drama, but takes a turn for the comedic—nearly slapstick—when Stem takes over for some over-the-top ass-kicking, before going right back to leaden conversations between Grey and Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) who’s investigating both Asha’s murder and the murders of various suspects in the crime. She should be a much more engaging character than she is.
There’s nothing wrong with executing a simple story effectively as long as there’s something more to elevate it, but Upgrade can’t quite do it. Elements are introduced—like a hacker who provides pleasant VR experiences for people wishing to escape their horrible lives—and then never brought back or paid off. The villains, all upgraded super soldiers themselves, have little to no personality aside from the leader (played with weaselly smarm by Benedict Hardie) and the revelations about why the crime took place land with such an obvious thud as to totally sack the mild goodwill built up from Marshall-Green’s astounding physicality.
Whannell clearly wants to get in on the all-too-common sci-fi idea of humanity becoming too reliant on technology, and a man literally unable to control his own limbs thanks to a software enhancement is a great idea for the kind of B-movie story at hand. But it totally squanders that premise through boring story execution and on-the-nose twists. I would have written the movie off as not-great-but-harmless had the writer-director not attempted a wholly unearned Saw-esque ending; at that point I had to say “Ctrl+Alt+Del” on the whole exercise.
Literally all the best parts are in the trailer, and almost all of the thematic elements are left under-explored. Upgrade is mercifully short at 95 minutes, but an extra 10 would have perhaps given Whannell the chance to develop anything: supporting characters, motivations, reasons behind certain bits of tech—just something. It ultimately feels as empty and hollow as the shiny bit of technology you think you need but soon realize was a waste.