There’s a scene in Upgrade in which Logan Marshall-Green exhibits some straight-up masterful physical comedy. Can we get this guy – the mournful-eyed star of The Invitation – in some slapstick comedies, please?
Despite a few scenes that had our audience cracking up and applauding, Upgrade is hard to pin down tonally. Leigh Whannell’s near-futuristic sci-fi flick is sometimes a tech thriller, sometimes a revenge actioner, sometimes a tragic film about loss. But it works best when it’s allowed to be a goofy blast, when Marshall-Green is allowed to have more fun than we’re used to seeing from him.
He plays Grey Trace, an old-fashioned mechanic in a new-fashioned world. Everything around Grey is automated – cars and homes and earbuds are all “smart” and streamlined. Grey doesn’t trust this pretty, sterile new world in which everything operates without the possibility of human error. Grey likes to work with his hands.
So, naturally, he’s paralyzed in a seemingly random mugging. Fortunately, he’s also on the radar of a billionaire tech wunderkind (Harrison Gilbertson) named Eron, whose car Grey once repaired. Eron offers a bitter Grey a way out from his wheelchair-bound prison, a way back to the hands-on man he used to be. Eron’s Vessel Industries has created a brand new piece of remarkable technology, a tiny apparatus that Eron calls “Stem” and Grey hilariously refers to as “a widget” for the duration of the film, the way your grandpa might call your laptop “that contraption.” Stem attaches itself to a person’s mental synapses and takes over the bodily functions. Grey merely has to think, “walk,” “run,” “grab that cup of coffee and drink it,” and Stem makes it so.
But, of course, it turns out that there’s more to Grey’s new upgrade than mobility. Stem speaks to him, a tiny voice in his ear giving him invaluable information and helping him solve the mystery of the men who paralyzed him. Get Out’s Betty Gabriel plays the detective assigned to Grey’s case, earnest and dedicated, but she doesn’t have the special advantages Stem brings to the table. Stem offers Grey enhanced senses and lightning-fast cognitive function – and reflexes.
That’s where the slapstick comedy comes in, as Grey allows Stem to take over when he’s in the middle of a physical altercation with one of the thugs responsible for his mugging. Suddenly he’s predicting every punch, dodging every swing, kicking and jumping like a damn “ninja,” as Grey describes himself. But meanwhile, Marshall-Green’s face looks utterly baffled, in complete disbelief of these miraculous things he’s doing. The resulting scene is both breathtakingly violent and totally hilarious.
It’s the best moment in Upgrade, and if the film were more comfortable framing itself as a sci-fi action comedy in total, it would be more successful. The ideas behind Upgrade are a little silly and juvenile, and when the movie wants to take itself seriously, we’re not really buying it.
But even in its most self-serious moments, Upgrade is more fun to watch than a lot of low-budget sci-fi movies we see in festival or VOD settings. It’s really visually interesting, with warm and colorful tech replacing the sterile blues and greys typical of films like this. Upgrade looks more expensive than it almost definitely is, and that’s to Whannell’s credit. He does a lot with a little and crafts a really cool look at the near future.
The opening credits are read in a robot voice; a driverless car is built like the hull of a wooden ship; an off-grid bar called Old Bones is filled with tough weirdos who have augmented their bodies with horns and head-bolts – these are the kinds of fun, goofy details that make Upgrade worth watching. It’s a good-natured film that will never bore you, but don’t enter into it thinking you’re about to find a thoughtful, mature treatise on the dangers of over-reliance on technology. Upgrade is not that movie – even though it might think it is.