Reel Talk

The Schlocky Joy of Upgrade



We live in a world that’s dominated by huge-budget action films, studio tent-poles that are meant to prop up the studio’s entire earnings. Don’t get me wrong, I’m on the record as being a big fan of the Marvel films, Star Wars, and most of the other massive franchises that take up the cinematic landscape during the summer months. But, there’s still a pretty huge downside to this domination from massive studio films. We’ve found ourselves in a dire need for more mid-tier cheese. Every now and then we get a few strange little films that seem to defy modern wide-release schedules, delivering incredibly odd little gems that can’t hope but compete with the big dogs, but which are able to proudly stand up as films worth checking out. In between all the hotly anticipated trailers for these massive movies you’ll occasionally find glimmers of these oddballs, enough to whet your appetite. And such a thing happened earlier this year, when everyone was champing at the bit to get a hint at what the Avengers were going to be up to, or if Alden Ehrenreich could pull off Han Solo, a strange trailer for a strange film popped up called Upgrade. The trailer quickly became ubiquitous before whatever movies I was seeing that week, and it was tantalizingly short on details. All you could tell from it was that it was about a quadriplegic man getting a microchip implanted in himself that let him walk, and become a kung fu using near-superhero capable to getting revenge on the people who did him wrong. It looked absurd. And completely up my alley. And, lo and behold, it was!

Upgrade takes place in the near-future, where technology has completely dominated human society. There’s driver-less cars, constant computer intervention, and very little room for  normal person. Which is where we find our protagonist, Grey Trace, a bit of a Luddite who spends his time working on old-fashioned cars. The film begins with Grey finishing a custom car for a young billionaire inventor named Eron Keen. Grey and his wife Asha drive out to Eron’s mansion and he shows them a new device he’s invented called STEM, an artificial intelligence that could function as a nervous system. The couple then return home, and disaster strikes. Their self-driving car goes off course, takes them to the bad part of town, and they’re attacked by a group thugs who kill Asha, and shoot Grey in the spine. He survives, but finds that he’s lost the use of his limbs. Grey attempts to live his life as a quadriplegic, but isn’t able to adapt to the life, and attempts suicide. Which is when Eron shows back up, offering to give Grey experimental survey that will install STEM into his spine, in theory giving him the use of his arms and legs again. Grey agrees, and STEM is installed. And it works. He’s able to move his body again, and begins working with Eron to prove that the system is viable. However, as he gets used to STEM, something odd happens. He starts to hear a voice coming from STEM, and artificial intelligence that begins talking with him, specifically to help Grey solve the mystery of Asha’s murder. STEM helps Grey find the identity of one of the killers, based off some drone footage, and the two go find his home, only to encounter the killer himself. Things seem dire when the murderer attempts to kill Grey, but he finds that if he gives STEM control of his body, the machine is able to help him kill the man.

Grey is repulsed by the fact that he just killed a person, despite having STEM in control, but also appreciates that he was able to actually find people responsible, more so than Detective Cortez, the officer that was assigned to the murder. So, Grey agrees to continue investigating with STEM, and they end up finding another of the murderers at a dive bar in the same neighborhood that they killed Asha. STEM uses Grey’s body to torture the man, and learns that it was not a random murder. The men have technological modifications in their body, made by the company that Asha worked for. They also learn that the group of killers were actually soldiers, led by a madman named Fisk, who is now specifically looking to track down Grey. But, that’s not the only issue Grey encounters, because Eron has become aware of Grey’s behavior, and works to shut down STEM remotely. STEM realizes what’s being done, and has Grey take him to a hacker who is able to remove all restrictions, giving STEM almost complete control of Grey. And, with that, he’s able to kill the third killer, leaving only Fisk alive. Grey considers giving up at this point, especially because Cortez has started to piece together his part in this string of murders, but STEM insists that Fisk will now track them down, and forces Grey to finish things. They manage to kill Fisk, but before he dies they learn something troubling. It wasn’t Asha’s company that ordered the attack, and she wasn’t even the target. Eron was behind it all, specifically to paralyze Grey so they could test STEM on him. So, Grey returns to Eron’s mansion, only to find that things are even crazier than he thought. Eron isn’t in charge. STEM is. Eron created an artificial intelligence that became so powerful it decided to give itself a body, and began setting everything in motion. Cortez arrives at this time, and STEM takes complete control of Grey, shoving Grey’s actual consciousness into an inescapable dream, letting him kill Cortez and Eron, finally having a body to his complete control.




Going into Upgrade, I had a pretty specific idea of what I was going to be seeing. There’s been a recent trend in film of making movies that function as satires of cheesy 80’s films, while also lovingly embracing them. Movies like the Guest, or any of the numerous Grindhouse inspired movies that have come out of the last decade. And, that certainly seemed to be the vibe that Upgrade was putting out in its trailers. And the film delivered on that feeling. Everything about this film came from a very specific set of influences, and it really clicked for me. It’s a film covered in neon, campy acting, and absurd violence, all carrying a script that’s full of outlandish twists and turns that make for a hell of a good time. It’s not exactly art, but it’s incredibly enjoyable. Logan Marshall-Green carries the film as Grey, putting in a delightful performance as a man seeking revenge, while also being flabbergasted by the fact that his body is doing things that it’s never done before. Seeing Grey become controlled by STEM and turning into a badass character hellbent on revenge is a whole lot of fun. There’s some confused and muddled thoughts about the surveillance state and the dangers of technology, but this isn’t really a film that needs a whole lot to say, all it needs to do is provide a specific kind of feeling, and it succeeds at that.

And what is that specific type of feeling? Well, for me it was recreating the feeling I had growing up, spending my summer vacations in my grandparent’s basement with my older cousins, watching cheesy movies I probably shouldn’t have been watching at that age. Movies like Robocop, Alien, and the Terminator movies were all big, over-the-top movies full of violence, somewhat muddled messages, and crazy effects. They’re all movies that I love, but they seemed designed to be seen in dark basements, having your mind blown by the strange blend of terror, technology, and campy elements. And Upgrade does a perfect job at capturing that type of film. We spend so much of our times in theaters looking for the biggest and most expensive films of the year. Massive blockbusters that cost millions of dollars in the attempt to earn billions. And they’re fun. But, there’s always going to be a part of me that eagerly awaits films like Upgrade. Mid-tier schlock that isn’t trying to become the highest-grossing film of all time. This movie doesn’t want to earn all the money in the world, it just wants to be a fun movie. Just a good, cheesy time at the movies. And this film delivers that in spades.


Upgrade was written and directed by Leigh Whannell and released by OTL Releasing, 2018.





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