Sometimes less can be more, but in other cases, especially with depicting a science fiction-influenced world, the more we see and understand that world the more we feel apart of it. Maybe it’s because we’re spoiled by so many detailed sci-fi worlds, like “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner” that spend as much time developing their technology and culture as they do with the characters, but watching Blumhouse’s “Upgrade” only made me want to see more of their world and left me disappointed that we only got to explore a fraction of it.
“Upgrade” is very focused on its story about Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) losing his wife and mobility in a random act of cyber violence and being given a unique piece of tech that allows him to walk again, as well as an artificial intelligence installed in his brain. But the film does give us brief glimpses and ideas about this world, namely that everyone has at least some augmentations or tech upgrades in their bodies, except for Grey who is against all these upgrades. Yet we never learn about what people have installed in their bodies and how most are augmented, outside of some bad guys having their arms made into guns.
We’re shown this advanced metropolis with skyscrapers that look like something out of “Blade Runner” in design, but most of the film takes place in an ordinary looking slum. “Upgrade” barely scratches the surface of its potential on how all these advancements in technology affects us as individuals and if we’re still human afterwards. Maybe this is because so many others told this tale so well, especially from “Black Mirror” and “Ghost in the Shell” (the anime and manga, not the movie), and “Upgrade” simply wanted to tell a gritty revenge story with loads of action. But if that’s the case, then why even have all the technology upgrades in the first place?
If you’re going to make that such a big part of your film, then give the audience a chance to see how this world is so vastly different yet oh-so familiar.
As far as a revenge tale, “Upgrade” works fine, especially from Grey’s perspective as a man who hates technology being forced to use the most advanced piece of hardware to find his wife’s killer. It’s like if “Death Wish” decided to be a low budget sci-fi flick. The highlight of this comes from Logan Marshall-Green’s acting and how he sells a man reluctant to do this yet despising his life as a paraplegic even more. The scenes after his accident and the life he has to lead now are heart-wrenching and tragic, showcasing the quiet yet powerful performance of Marshall-Green.
Once the titular upgrade, called STEM, is added to the film, there’s an air of mystery surrounding this piece of technology and what it’s true motives are. It demonstrates right away that it can think and act on its own, whether Grey wants it to or not, but it always has Grey’s best interests in mind, like if your smart phone could communicate with you. Yet STEM helps contribute to a bloody massacre as Grey works his way through a bunch of henchmen to find the man he wants, brutalizing each of them in most ruthless ways that you’d expect from a company known for their horror films. If you went into this expecting just a sci-fi action film, you’ll be surprised to see just how horrific things get.
Overall, “Upgrade” is fine as an action film focused on revenge, but as a science fiction piece it leaves a lot to be desired. There is little to no exploration of this world and what it’s capable of while only teasing at a much larger picture, which is unfortunate considering how technology is so prevalent throughout the movie. The acting brings up the quality, especially from Marshall-Green and the action is stylized enough to differentiate it from others of its kind. For a low-budget picture, this one gets the job done.
Final Grade: C+