As I try to remind myself every year, the best movies I’m likely to see are ones I hadn’t even heard of beforehand. The movies that sneak up on you and smack you upside the head with surprise and startling originality. Upgrade is one of the first movies to do that for me in 2018 (right behind Annhilation, which will be hard to beat as my favorite of the year). This movie came out of seemingly nowhere, directed brilliantly and energetically by Leigh Whannell (who kickstarted the ‘Saw’ and ‘Insidious’ series as a writer with longtime friend James Wan). Upgrade is a kinetic, intelligent sci-fi action film that stands alongside the films that helped inspire it (Terminator, Robocop, others that I won’t mention in fear of spoiling plot). It’s the type of movie that audiences should support in the cinema; unique, new, self-contained stories that have all but been pushed out in favor of big budget blockbusters or tiny indie fare.
We open the film with Grey and Asha Trace (Logan Marshall-Green and Melanie Vallejo), a husband and wife who have very different views on techology’s place in society (Upgrade takes place at least 40-50 years in the future). Asha works at a software company and Grey fixes up old muscle cars for rich clients, dependent on doing work with his hands in a world that’s completely at-odds with old school blue-collar work. When tragedy befalls the two after a run-in with a faulty AI unit and a gang in Grey’s old neighborhood, he has no other choice than to turn to technology to take revenge for what was taken from him. That’s as spoiler-free as I can possibly be (hell, even the trailers spoil way more than that) but believe me, this is one that you should walk in blind for, if anything.
One thing I loved with Upgrade was the world-building. Not since the first John Wick was I so enamored with the setting of a movie. Where that series has the continental, their ‘rules’, unique currency and more, this movie has technology. This is a society that I could see as our future, more or less. Drones fill the sky, monitoring citizens, alerting the police to crimes. The poor and/or homeless spend their days and weeks inside virtual reality (think a Black Mirror version of Ready Player One) and above all, technology can heal the wounded. It’s the latter that Upgrade really cares about, as Grey finally has to utilize technology to be whole again. The fact that this movie was made with Blumhouse (a notoriously ‘frugal’ production company) on what I’m sure was a very small budget is vastly more impressive. I hope this is just the beginning of new, unique Sci-Fi films from Blumhouse.
Last of all, I’ve gotta talk about the action in this movie. The movie has a bit of a slow (but necessary) opening 20 minutes, but when shit hits the fan, you’ll probably be yelling and cheering as loud as we were in the theater. You’d think this was Whannell’s fourth or fifth movie with how confidently he directs action. The camera sometimes locks in on Grey’s face, staying steady on him to give the sense that he’s not quite in control of his movements. With each fight scene, blood spills, bones break, and the body-horror influence comes to the surface. Every single scrape that Grey gets into is a complete horrorshow blast to watch.
I won’t talk about the ending, but suffice to say I didn’t expect the movie to go to the places that it did. The majority of the time I thought I was watching one type of movie when it turns out it was also something else really special. Upgrade is the type of movie that I want to write about and tell people to see, so we can make sure there are more unique movies like it in the future (not just on streaming services). If you can, get out and see it this week to help support the little guys at the cinema. Don’t get me wrong, we all love our Star Wars and Marvel movies, but a little creative variety at the theater can go a long way.