In the not so distant past, movies like Upgrade – the new hyper violent sci-fi action thriller from Leigh Wannell and starring Logan Marshall-Green – had a firm grip on their little corner of the multiplexes. The 1990s were chock full of these mid-tier action thrillers, blending genres and showcasing a muscular grit and grime; these films have been squeezed out of cinemas for the most part and funneled into On Demand and streaming platforms, one of many moderately-budgeted, adult-oriented casualties of mass franchise filmmaking.
Upgrade has a certain video on demand vibe to it, but not because it is some inferior product. It may very well be one of the most compelling and involving action pictures of the year, but rarely does this sort of movie find any room in between Disney products. It’s a miracle Upgrade is on the big screen, and any fans of the “elevated B-movie” should reward it with their time.
Logan Marshall-Green has steadily been carving out his own path as an actor, out from under the “The Guy Who Looks Like Tom Hardy But Isn’t Tom Hardy” stigma, with terrific work in The Invitation and the short-lived Cinemax noir series Quarry. Green plays Grey Trace (hint hint), an auto mechanic in a near future world where surveillance technology, automation, and all those sorts of robotic nightmares we see floating around social media from time to time have become commonplace. Grey is an analog man, working with his hands on classic cars for eccentric clients, a tough gig made possible by his hard-working corporate wife, Ahsa (Melanie Vallejo).
After Grey and Asha deliver one of these classic cars to Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), a socially-detached computer genius who just-so-happens to be his client, there is a tragedy. Grey is left paralyzed and seeking revenge, and Eron has the technology he needs to find those responsible. It is STEM, basically a nickel-sized computer with legs, resembling a roach, which can connect to Grey’s severed spine and begin sending information to his body once again. Not only will STEM allow Grey to walk, it comes fully equipped with an operating system and internal communication that only Grey can hear. This OS can analyze video footage, find leads, and do all the research to find the band of brutal hitmen; and Wannell’s film smartly examines the conflict and the dangers of a sentient program embedded in a person’s mind.
STEM can take over Grey’s body and is a strong, agile, elite fighting machine, impervious to just about any affront as Grey begins digging into the seediest spots of the nondescript metropolis. The juxtaposition between STEM kicking ass and Grey’s horrified looks as he watches everything close up add some wonderful macabre humor, and the physical acting from Green in these moments is something wholly original and pretty amazing when considering the sort of dexterity and balance of athleticism he is executing. He makes us believe in this absurd scenario, which is the mark of an actor who fits so comfortably into these sort of genre pictures. These films succeed almost entirely on the back of their hero and how well he can convince us what we are seeing is real – at least in this heightened world.
The problem many of these genre films run into is the feeling they are on autopilot, and their predictable plot lines ultimately die on a vine of staleness and uninspired direction. It is easy to see which way this story is headed, but the road it takes to its ultimate destination is paved with ingenuity and some stunningly neo-noir cinematography and art direction.
Upgrade is set mostly at night, bathed in reflections of steel technology and harsh neon lights. The characters don’t stop down to let us know just what year it is, or what all of the tech does, because we don’t need that. Wannell’s screenplay is efficient and fat free, and the film approaches the sort of near future with a ripe mixture of high-concept design and street-level authenticity. The advancements of these characters, villains with computers in their eyes and shotguns in their arms, is fresh and exciting, but also low-key and believable. The whole film is a walk along this kind of razor’s edge between absurdity and high-minded science fiction, and Wannell is game for the challenge.
Perhaps Upgrade is the tip of a new spear at multiplexes. Later this summer we have The Meg, a Giant Shark Movie, hitting theaters later this summer. Then there is the offbeat action comedy Hotel Artemis this month. If these films find their audience – and there is the rub – then they might just find their place again. But they have to be smart, and they have ti be unashamed of what they are. Upgrade knows precisely what it is, and just like the operating system inside Grey’s head, it executes with stunning efficiency.