FILM REVIEW – UPGRADE. With Logan Marshall-Green, Benedict Hardie, Simon Maiden, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson. Written by and directed by Leigh Whannell. Rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language. 95 minutes.
There was once a time when knowing what studio was releasing a film told you much about it. While those days are gone (really, who can really tell a Warner Bros. film from one from Paramount?), there are still certain production companies and distributors which have a signature style. One such company is Blumhouse Productions, which specializes in tightly-budgeted genre pieces many of which make a lot of money. If the “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” franchises are rather silly, they also have released solid efforts like “Sinister,” “Get Out,” as well as “The Purge” franchise.
UPGRADE isn’t “Get Out,” but it falls on the smart side of the ledger. Writer/director Leigh Whannell (who plays Specs in the “Insidious” films) sets his story in a high-tech near-future. Combining elements of “Death Wish” with “The Six Million Dollar Man,” it focuses on Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who witnesses the brutal murder of his wife and is left a quadriplegic. Enter Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), an eccentric and reclusive high-tech genius who convinces Grey to undergo an experimental operation which will implant a device – called Stem – in him that will give him full mobility again.
This is where the film takes off. Without giving too much away, Grey finds that Stem can communicate directly with him (voice of Simon Maiden), and that he not only can move but that his abilities have greatly increased. He begins tracking down and eliminating the men responsible for his wife’s murder, discovering that they have secrets of their own.
Although this a smartly written film, Whannell includes several scenes of graphic violence. The film richly deserves its R rating, and some may find themselves turning away from the screen at moments. On the other hand, when it reaches its “big reveal” and you react by thinking how formulaic and predictable it is, hang on. Whannell is just getting started.
Although the cast is largely unknown, that isn’t the same thing as saying that they’re not up to the job. Betty Gabriel, who you may recognize from “The Purge: Election Year” and “Westworld,” is all determination as Cortez, the cop assigned to the case and who wonders why someone confined to a wheelchair seems to be near several murder scenes. Marshall-Green carries much of the film as Grey and plays a range from loving husband to suicidal survivor to avenging angel. Although only heard, Gilbertson’s voicing of Stem puts him up there with Douglas Rain (the voice of HAL 9000 in “2001”) and William Daniels (as K.I.T.T. in “Knight Rider”) in making a digital voice a full-bodied character.
“Upgrade” is Blumhouse Productions at its best: a slick, taut genre piece that may have been done on a budget but doesn’t look like they cut corners. As the major studio blockbusters continue to roll out in the coming weeks, one can only hope they’re as well thought out and put together as this.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.