Leigh Whannell started as an actor, became a writer – of the horror franchise Saw and its sequels most notably – became a producer, then eventually a director. Upgrade is his second film behind the camera, having familiarised himself with the controls on Insidious: Chapter 3.
Here he wears all the hats apart from the actor’s, in a film that’s attempting a genre blend – superhero origin meets detective thriller meets social commentary – in a techy story about a paraplegic guy who has his functions restored, upgraded even, after being implanted with a computer chip designed by a squillionaire tech mogul called Eron. Ahem.
Upgrade was released in 2018, which was the year the public perception of Elon Musk underwent a downgrade. Remember the kids trapped in the water-filled tunnels of a cave system in Thailand, when Musk called one of the children’s rescuers a “pedo guy”. That’ll do it.
Whether the Elon avatar, Eron, is or is not a bad guy is one of the teases of Whannell’s screenplay, which also takes issue with the internet of things – is it good to have everything connected? – and the concept of authenticity in its portrayal of paraplegic-cum-ubermensch Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), the real honest to goodness all-male male who we first meet fixing up an old gas-guzzling Pontiac Firebird while listening to Howlin’ Wolf on vinyl in the garage. What could be more authentic than that?
But an accident kills Grey’s wife and leaves this technophobe disabled, until along comes the chip and hey presto he is able to walk again, and a lot more besides, including the odd act of homicide. Enter a cop, and the detective thriller strand of the film, in the shape of Betty Gabriel as Detective Cortez, an old-school shoe-leather-and-routine-questioning kind of law enforcer.
All in all, it’s a brilliant premise. A murderer with the cast iron defence – a quadriplegic who cannot brush his teeth is unlikely to commit a murder – but Whannell is less interested in this aspect of his story than in Trace’s coming to terms with his “upgrade”, which this big ball of authenticity sees as anything but.
But it does introduce Gabriel into the story, a big plus because she’s got charisma to burn and this film badly needs it.
Most notably in the case of Logan Marshall-Green, who is a different sort of actor than the role demands. It wants Keanu Reeves. It gets competence. Competence is fine but it doesn’t increase the heart rate.
Harrison Gilbertson’s road to stardom is a long and twisting one. He was, next to Michael Keaton, the best thing in the woeful Need for Speed – a Fast & Furious knock-off – and he’s nicely ambivalent here as tech mogul Eron, though again it’s not showreel stuff.
Nice supporting turns from Linda Cropper as Trace’s caring, concerned and motherly mother; and from Benedict Hardie as a henchman who might potentially be an evil mastermind.
Whannell’s clout and success rate mean he can probably go much starrier in his casting than he has, so we’ve got to assume he wants actors who don’t arrive with a lot of baggage. Nor has he spent a king’s ransom in his creation of a futurescape of self-driving cars (in 2018 Elon Musk was promising these within a year) of AI-enhanced human biology and of interactive houses run by bots with the soft, doleful vocal lilt familiar from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The whole thing feels like a homage to pastiche and is the sort of movie you put on after a punishing day when you just want to be gently massaged not confronted by novelty or concepts. And Whannell keeps us guessing right to the end who the real bad guy is.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023