Movie Review: Upgrade

What’s a distributor to do when you have to find content for a moviegoing audience? For Universal Pictures HK, you go back a couple of years and release a film that never made it to Hong Kong’s movie screens until now. That film is UPGRADE, which premiered at SXSW in March 2018 and took home the Midnighters award, a section that the festival’s website bills as “scary, funny, sexy, controversial – ten provocative after-dark features for night owls and the terminally curious”.

Set sometime in the not-too-distant future when autonomous vehicles are on the road and surveillance drones are in the air, Grey Trace (low-rent Tom Hardy, Logan Marshall-Green, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING; PROMETHEUS) is an unassuming guy who makes a living repairing vintage gas guzzlers for discerning buyers while his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo, Australian TV’s WINNERS & LOSERS), works as an executive for an upstart high tech company. After Asha is killed and Grey is left as a quadriplegic by a group of thugs who have mysterious abilities, Grey agrees to undergo experimental surgery offered by one of his clients — billionaire high tech wunderkind, Eron Keen (Australian actor Harrison Gilbertson). His spine is inserted with a microchip known as STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden, THE DRESSMAKER) that allows him to not just regain full mobility, it provides him with enhanced capabilities too. Fitted with the chip, Grey and STEM embark on a quest to find the guys who killed Asha but Grey quickly learns that the attack and murder was not a random event.

Don’t expect a lot with UPGRADE and you won’t be disappointed. This is pure B-movie fluff but at least it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than that. Writer-director Leigh Whannell (THE INVISIBLE MAN; the INSIDIOUS franchise, the SAW franchise) keeps the action taut and, dare I say, gory throughout even if the story does borrow from at least a half a dozen other sci-fi films and even TV’s KNIGHT RIDER. It also throws in a few Easter eggs for those who know Whannell’s body of work well. At the same time though, the story goes down a bit of a rabbit hole at the film’s conclusion that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny when everything is revealed. I suppose it doesn’t really matter to the film’s fans.

Is UPGRADE “scary, funny, sexy, controversial, and provocative”? Yes, it is funny at times but it’s certainly not any of the others. If anything, I wish it would have been more provocative and get into some biomedical ethical issues, but this is only a 100-minute film and maybe I’m expecting too much. It was announced in May that Whannell is currently working on an adaptation of the film for TV. The series will apparently pick up a few years after the events of the film and a new-and-improved STEM will have a new host. Hopefully Whannell will be able to deal with some of those meaty issues here. There’s no word on when the show will debut.

If you haven’t seen UPGRADE yet and you enjoy this genre of film, then I’d say go see it. As it’s been out for two years already, it’s also available for rent or buy on the various services.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, July 10th, 8:30 am HK time!

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