Upgrade review: "Surely destined for cult status"

An image from Upgrade

GamesRadar+ Verdict

A retro science-fiction actioner with both brains and brawn – quite a lot of brawn, actually. Surely destined for cult status.

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Glossy, VFX-heavy, high-budget science-fiction blockbusters featuring global peril are all very well in today’s multiplex market. But viewers of a certain age likely harbour a hunger for the kind of dingy, muscular B-movies that used to play the local fleapit or pop up on the shelves of their corner video shop. Y’know, stuff like The Terminator, The Hidden (1987) and all those early Cronenberg body horrors.

Upgrade ransacks those bygone classics to imagine a near-future that looks much like ours (it saves money that way) bar a few more drones buzzing the night skies and some smart cars gliding along the sodium-lit streets. Our hero, Trace Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), is the kind of analogue guy who also belongs in the ’80s, fixing up muscle cars for a living and selling them to tech billionaires like Eron (Harrison Gilbertson).

It’s Eron who offers salvation when Trace and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) are brutally robbed, resulting in Asha’s death and Trace waking up in hospital to the prospect of spending the rest of his life as a quadriplegic. Or at least the next 10 minutes of screen time, until Eron unveils a metal roach named Stem that he surgically implants into Grey’s spinal column to jump-start his limbs. Only Stem also likes to whisper suggestions into Grey’s tortured mind, encouraging him to track down his muggers and rub them from the face of the Earth in all sorts of gloriously violent ways.

An image from Upgrade

Writer/director Leigh Whannell, of course, knows all about unleashing a slew of grue having co-scripted the first three Saw movies (he also wrote the first three chapters of the Insidious franchise, and directed the third). Here, he also reveals that he knows a thing or two about staging jaw-dropping (literally, in one scene) fight sequences. “I need your permission to operate independently,” Stem says in a voice every bit as calm as HAL’s monotone, and then, permission granted, pilots Trace’s limbs with ruthless economy. It’s exhilarating to watch, and made amusing too by Trace’s downturned eyes in a static head – they pricelessly widen as they watch this newly lethal body go to work.

Marshall-Green, in fact, is something of a revelation, suggesting that his own career deserves an upgrade; he’s a whole lot better than most of the material that’s come his way over the last 15 years. Maybe it’s because he looks like a knock-off Tom Hardy that he’s previously been sold short. Here, that rather fits Upgrade’s Xerox effect, given that Whannell flaunts his influences while still making a movie good enough to stand tall on its own considerable merits. 

  • Release date: Out now (US)/August 31, 2018 (UK)
  • Certificate: R (US)/15 (UK)
  • Running time: 100 mins

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Editor-at-Large, Total Film

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror.