SXSW Film Review: Leigh Whannel crafts an incredibly fun sci-fi horror with Upgrade (Australia, 2018)

Technology gone overboard is a sci-fi trope that has been done to death in cinema, but it’s a pleasure to watch stories that are still bringing fresh takes on the theme. The latest is Upgrade, a techno-horror slash detective thriller written and directed by Leigh Whannell who moves away from the past few years of supernatural scares with the Insidious franchise and finds himself a bit closer to the gritty horror-thriller territory that first made him famous back in 2004 with Saw. This isn’t no torture-porn outing though, focusing on the paranoia of a technologically advanced world with Logan Marshall-Green’s oddly-named Grey Trace serving as Leigh’s conduit.

Set in the near-future, Trace finds himself one of the few skeptics left in a world that very much runs and relies on advanced technology. His girlfriend, Asha (Aussie actress Melanie Vallejo), couldn’t be more different; while Grey is meticulously handling a muscle car in his garage, she’s whizzing around the city in a smart car, or fully embracing the automation of their lush smart home. Grey restores cars for a living (about as hands-on a job as you can in a digital world), which leads him to awkward tech-genius billionaire Erin King (Harrison Gilbertson), a young mad scientist type who uses to opportunity to show off his latest development to Grey and Asha: a tiny circuit going by the name of STEM, an obvious digitised comparison to stem cells that can be implanted in a human and, as Erin describes, is “a new, better brain”.

On the way home, Asha’s self-driving car malfunctions and the two end up on the wrong side of town with an obviously planned robbery leaving Asha dead and Grey irrevocably disabled, confined to a wheelchair. Leigh wastes little time at ramping the stakes for the film, nor does he squander his second outing as a director with some truly stunning shots all throughout and some excellent ideas that disorientate Grey and really focus on his emotional turmoil.

Erin visits Grey in the hospital and it’s not hard to discern what happens next. With STEM implanted in Grey’s body, the protagonist becomes an anti-hero superhero of sorts, switching the film’s tone to bring in a slice of wide-eyed action which is handled very well by a director whose first outing took place in and around a haunted house. The idea of STEM essentially splitting Grey Trace into two minds within the same body is also bold move, and Green sells it very well, acting with the entirety of his body and throwing in plenty of dark humour to break up the high-octane action with very human reactions to this hyperbolic transformation.

It’s around this point that Betty Gabriel is introduced as Detective Cortez, drawing on the actresses characteristic on-screen warmth to counterbalance Grey’s rampage and present this really effective and complex relationship between the two that exists despite her character being horribly underwritten. The dynamic between Cortez and Grey is still endearing, though unfortunately not given enough time to truly permeate the story.

Instead of social dynamics, Leigh is more interested in rushing to the horror elements with a cyber-enhanced Grey Trace teamed up with STEM to track his girlfriends killers. Fight scenes are aplenty throughout, giving Logan-Marshall Green a really interesting and undoubtedly demanding physical task whereby Grey is allowing STEM to take full control of his body when necessary, yet merely observing the devastating results with shock and concern. The aesthetic design of this dangerous scene Grey falls into is a resounding strength of Upgrade, bringing something raw, gritty and rustic into the overly polished world and making it stick with pure muscle, aggressively painting a vintage-like underbelly that lives outside of Upgrade’s hyper-tech reality. Whannell seems to enjoy playing with this kind of juxtaposition, even making use of beautifully rendered natural elements that ebb, flow and creep around these digitised settings, and the film’s visuals are all the better for it.

Leigh has worked with the famously budget cautious folks at Blumhouse and managed to make Upgrade look and feel like an expensive, slick and polished affair. The action scenes are fantastic and the set designs are exquisite, used ingeniously to enhance the vigorous story. Add a few twists at the end, and Upgrade is incredibly fun genre film that should easily sit near the top of the more niche horror lists come end of year.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Upgrade had its world premiere at SXSW Film Festival this year.