★★★★ / ★★★★
Every once in a while I come across a work that makes such a terrific impression that I become thoroughly convinced right in the middle of it that the movie will be remembered fondly ten to twenty years from the time of its release. “Upgrade,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell, is such a film for it takes a familiar template regarding our relationship with technology, specifically artificial intelligence, and wrinkles the blueprint just enough to create an ambitious, amusing, suspenseful, and highly entertaining project.
The writer-director understands that special and visual effects tend to show their age over time but ideas rarely so—not if it is taken seriously and treated with intelligence in order to match the skill or craft behind the filmmaking. And so Whannell invests on the ideas. Well-paced, atmospheric, and driven by an unrelenting forward momentum, we observe the screen as a giddy feeling takes over from the toes upward. We wonder what it is going to do next in order to surprise us.
Equipped with a specific near-future look that reminds one of the “John Wick” pictures, particularly when it plays with lighting, we appreciate the lived-in quality of nearly every space, from the trashy interiors of a sketchy apartment building to seedy restrooms of off-grid bars. Even in places where curious technology can be found in every corner, including those of rooms flooded with near-blinding white, these images are not so inaccessible or unbelievable that they come across looking like mere set pieces.
Because the different types of environment command an air of realism, it becomes easier to buy into not only its premise involving a quadriplegic man who gets a second chance to use his limbs again after he undergoes an operation to put a chip, called STEM, developed by a renowned innovator (Harrison Gilbertson), along his spinal cord but also in terms of the events that must take place after he learns that the biomechanical fusion comes with great advantages in addition to regaining movement.
The subject who gets the implant is named Grey, a mechanic, a man whose passion is to create using his hands, and he is played by Logan Marshall-Green. Obviously capable of delivering the necessary gravity and drama at a drop of a hat, especially when his character, nearly completely paralyzed on a bed or while sitting on a wheelchair, he is equally adept at providing wit and humor even right in the middle of an action sequence that requires jaw dropping acrobatics. Although Grey is driven by vengeance against those responsible for paralyzing him and killing his wife, there is a humanity to the character. In less capable hands, it is highly likely that the character might have ended up mechanical, standard, or boring especially in a revenge film where we already know that the bad guys are required to get their comeuppance.
The villains are quite formidable. A criticism can be made that not one of them is fleshed out, but I argue they do not need to be because they, in a way, function as symbols or ideas. They are not standard gun-toting enemies who drop dead after getting hit by a bullet. On the contrary, they are inspired because they, too, have enhanced abilities. For instance, the apparent ringleader (Benedict Hardie) can kill a person by simply breathing a certain way.
“Upgrade” offers great entertainment from the second it begins up until its devilishly delicious ending. If a sequel were to be made, I hope that its ideas will be grander and that that they are executed with at least the same high energy as its predecessor. I admired that the film embraces the fact that genre pieces can be enjoyable and smart. Here, it examines a new technology and its unexpected consequences.