Although writer-director Leigh Whannell has made short trips out of the horror genre before, his second directorial effort Upgrade (following Insidious: Chapter 3) feels like a big, bold step for the writer of Saw and Insidious. Although it’s violent as hell and there is more than a smattering of body horror in there, it’s a sci-fi thriller first and foremost. Upgrade is confident, stylish, and although it has clear nods to its predecessors, it’s unpredictable.
Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation, Prometheus) plays Grey, an analogue guy in a near future that seems to work nearly perfectly. Until, that is, he and his wife are attacked on their way home, leaving her dead and him paralysed from the neck down. Frustrated by the cops’ inability to find the culprits, Grey is looking to put an end to everything until a genius tech designer (Harrison Gilbertson) reaches out with an experimental, untested chip that could let him walk again: STEM.
The fact that he’s back on his feet must remain a secret, but when STEM reveals itself to be able to communicate and help him on his quest for vengeance, Grey decides to take matters into his own hands.
The set-up is the same as most revenge films, and early on you’d be forgiven for wondering what it is that sets Upgrade apart from the rest of the furious pack. However, Marshall-Green’s strong work keeps us invested and Whannell’s deliberate pacing heightens the impact once STEM shows Grey exactly what it can do: beat people to a pulp and get creative with the killing blows. Inventive tracking camera-work glues your eyes to the screen while Marshall-Green plays Grey’s horror at the carnage beautifully, resulting in gruesome and shockingly funny set-pieces.
As our hero’s confidence and relationship with STEM grows, Whannell sprinkles in some cyberpunk paranoia to keep things interesting and finds a way to follow well-worn genre paths closely enough to lull you into a false sense of comfort before taking a sharp left turn. It’s a highly entertaining B-movie that’s smarter than it looks, and there’s a real sense of glee both from the writer-director and the star that makes it a lot of gruesome fun.