We are officially in summer movie season as Memorial Day 2018 has come and gone. Audiences have already been treated to many major releases, all sporting huge budgets and big-name talent in front of and behind the camera. Upgrade is the opposite of that – it’s the result of a $3-$5 million budget and has relative unknowns directing, writing, producing and starring. What is more interesting is that this isn’t a sequel of a known property nor part of a superhero film franchise. Upgrade is an original work that borrows from past features, but this sci-fi thriller is surprisingly fresh and entertaining. It’s worth a look despite the fact that its lead, Logan Marshall-Green, isn’t the most charming leading man.

Upgrade is a combination of Death Wish and The Six Million Dollar Man, and since it’s a sci-fi horror it reminds me somewhat of the 1991 horror Body Parts (with Jeff Fahey). Upgrade is written and directed by Aussie Leigh Whannell and stars Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie, Simon Maiden and Melanie Vallejo. It centers on Grey Trace (Marshall-Green), a stay-at-home mechanic who eschews modern technology and fears the worst from it and its advancements. After a tragic incident resulting in the tragic death of his wife Asha (Vallejo) and leaves him paralyzed, Trey is offered the opportunity to walk again thanks to a revolutionary invention from one of his customers, tech mogul Eron Keen (Gilbertson).

Eron, who’s a typical recluse, has been working on his latest product, a microchip he calls STEM. STEM (voiced by Maiden) has the ability to attach itself to anything and improve that host’s abilities. With Grey a quadriplegic, STEM represents the perfect opportunity to regain full movement. More importantly, Trey can finally discover his wife’s killers and exact some sweet revenge. Trey agrees to have STEM surgically (and secretly) installed in his body and quickly gets to work, since the local police, led by Detective Cortez (Gabriel), have almost zero leads.

Admittedly, when I saw the trailer for Upgrade I was not impressed. It looked like a hybrid of plenty of features (many forgettable) and I wasn’t sold on Marshall-Green. Whannell, though, presented a fresh take on old material and Marshall-Green’s acting has improved since his turn in 2012’s Prometheus. Add to that some interesting technology and some gruesome violence, and the result is a movie that is entertaining and darkly funny.

Of course, there are faults. Upgrade’s first act is slow and thus takes some time to get going. And even though Whannell is talented enough to keep his script from being borrowed, he still subscribes to many film tropes that are old and tired. Also, if you pay attention, there are a couple of plot twists which really aren’t plot twists - the need to keep the story lively is likely the biggest reason the twists even exist.

But the most interesting aspect is Whannell’s take on A.I. and its threat of sentience. From that perspective, Upgrade is somewhat a violent companion piece to Alex Garland’s 2015 sci-fi masterpiece, Ex-Machina. Ex-Machina is a more intelligent take on the aforementioned subject matter, whereas Whannell uses Upgrade to peek at its potentially catastrophic results.

Upgrade is obviously not intended to be a moral think piece. At its core, it’s a sci-fi thriller and is horrific in ways that have been explored in The Terminator and, more recently, Westworld. Regardless, Upgrade is better than expected and is worth checking out thanks to Whannell, even if his vision is a little uneven and predictable.

3.5 stars out of 5

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