“This movie is basically a video game and I have a lot of reasons why,” I told my editor Kris, in pitching this review to them.
“Brock, you say that about every B action movie you’ve seen lately,” they told me.
Oh. Damn. Uh.
The thing is, I still absolutely stand behind it, because I can see the clear line of Hollywood’s influence on how my brain processes the idea of an action sequence. I wrote about this at length in my review of this year’s Tomb Raider reboot, a film also produced by the game studio behind the source material. Selling readers on the connection between that film and that game was easy because it’s all right there. But talking about the influence of games is much more direct with the film Upgrade, because it is a master class in the potential of bridging the gap between cinema and arcade.
In the near future, the panopticon surveillance state has eyes everywhere, and all citizens are tracked by drones. There are self-driving cars and apps that re-order food from your fridge when you’re out of eggs and a handful of other near-future tech that establish this world as maybe three years out from now. The world also has towering skyscrapers with self-contained ecosystems and the ability to build living weather in your condo and robot arms that make smoothies a few other choices that seem much farther off? It’s a weird mix of the foreseeable present and the exaggerated cryptotech that builds a nice blend of believable Blade Runner. Cleaner, smaller, and less neon-drenched, but entirely in the same family of future noir.
I traditionally love things that are very broken, and oh boy is Upgrade broken in all the right places.
Stuck in this world, or more accurately between worlds, is Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green). Despite his Neuromancer-level ridiculous name, Grey is a product of an older time. He’s a mechanic who restores muscle cars for ridiculously wealthy clients who can afford something as ridiculous as a gasoline-burning, manually controlled vehicle. Grey’s wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) is, you won’t believe this, the complete opposite of her husband. Whaaaaat? Asha works at a big tech firm doing big secret tech firm stuff, but her husband doesn’t want to know what all that science junk is all about. He likes cars and being a man and… touching… oil? I dunno. He’s very relatable.
Grey finishes a vehicle for a Zuckerberg level reclusive techbro (Harrison Gilbertson) and decides to surprise Asha by bringing her along for the drop-off, so that she can meet one of her tech heroes. She says something that hurts his techbro feelings and, on the drive home, their self-driving car mysteriously crashes. And then a team of assassins kills Asha in front of Grey, while using a medical tool on him that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down.
Do you know who ordered this hit? Can you guess from context clues? I could. It’s not the biggest twist. That’s fine. That’s not what we’re here to see.
After Grey has suffered through the pain of a terrible fridging, he resumes life as a paraplegic. The future is only slightly better for people in his situation, so there are no miracles coming. Unless, wait… who is that? Is that the Evil Scienceboy bringing a techbro device that will do miracle things at Grey? Indeed it is. And pretty soon Grey is walking and dancing and back to life as usual. Except he’s signed a non-disclosure agreement that prevents the world from knowing about techbro’s secret surgery and device. That’s right… one of the biggest antagonist forces in this film is a tightly-worded NDA. This might be my new favorite movie. I know it doesn’t sound like it, but you are reading my tone right. I traditionally love things that are very broken, and oh boy is Upgrade broken in all the right places.
That’s all the big narrative out of the way. Let’s get to the brutality.
Grey can do stuff around the house, but when he goes out into the world he still has to pretend to be paralyzed. Out in the world, he meets with a detective (Betty Gabriel) who cannot solve his case, due to firewall blockers protecting the IDs of the men who killed Grey’s wife. While trapped at home and going over the evidence, a voice pops into Grey’s head. This is STEM. STEM is the micro-chip upgrade in his neck who control’s Grey’s lower body and can also speak directly into his brain. Now we have a narrator that only Grey can hear, and thus begins a very bloody remake of Will Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction.
STEM allows Grey to see things that even the highest powered computer cannot, like small details of tattoos that Grey’s hand can then autowrite in high definition. None of the details STEM turns up can be used in court, so an investigation begins. Grey wheels around town and carefully begins to break into the homes and businesses of suspects, using STEM as a guide in his version of LA Noire. For example, once all the evidence has been exhausted in a location, STEM gives Grey a list of every single surface he left a fingerprint on, so that he may remove evidence of his crime. This gets more difficult when STEM leads Grey into interrogating his aggressors, and of course, their eventually terrible demise.
There’s a great deal to love about STEM and Grey’s back and forth, mostly thanks to the extremely broken sense of humor Grey adopts and the robotic deadpan of STEM, who cannot help but take every command at face value. Marshall-Green, who should really be a bigger Hollywood name by this point, sells the entirety of the movie on his nuanced and physical performance of a man who alternates between having no control of his body beneath the neck and the state of being a murder-machine operating on tank controls. It’s very RoboCop, but it’s also the level of performance that Peter Weller brought to that definitive role. And the aforementioned tank control performance, mixed with Marshall-Green’s facial performance as a man being taken on a runaway ride by his own body, really does come across as the kind of humor you’d experience watching actors attempt to recreate the first Resident Evil.
The film wants to be a Blade Runner that doesn’t take itself nearly so seriously, and in that effort it is a stunning success.
Grey’s journey takes him into a web on conspiracy and intrigue, because there are no other kinds of webs to wind up in. Soon, the human competition becomes so unmatched that the world has to reveal a set of assassins who have also been augmented with murder cyborg technology, including their leader (played by Benedict Hardie) who really steals the third act.
The film wants to be a Blade Runner that doesn’t take itself nearly so seriously, and in that effort it is a stunning success. Sure, the big bad even gives a speech that’s basically the Tears In The Rain monologue beat by beat, but why not steal from the best, especially if your version is going to eclipse the inspiration’s sequel? (Yeah, this movie gets bonus points for a lack of Jared Leto. Fight me.)
The presence of a few incredible set pieces really makes the $3-$5 million budget proof of incredible craftsmanship from the team at Blumhouse. But more importantly, Upgrade plays at a number of bigger concepts, world building, and genuine questions without ever dropping the ball or dropping your attention. I personally saw an evolution throughout the film which mirrored the evolution of games themselves: Grey is an analogue man in a digital world, until his upgrade moves him into what begins as a series of commands given in the same format as a text adventure game, and ends in parkour sequences that would have you reaching for quick time event buttons even without a controller in your hand. It understands everything that I wanted from a sci-fi action film, down to the humor and the body horror, and for that I will forever celebrate it.