Leigh Whannell may have finally come into his own as a director with his sci-fi romp UPGRADE. Known as James Wan’s left-hand man for so long, Whannell helped write some of the greatest horror films of the 21st century. Whannell penned films like SAW and INSIDIOUS, films that helped revolutionize the horror market.

Then, in 2015, he had his directorial debut in INSIDIOUS 3. It was a fun 3rd entry in the INSIDIOUS lore, but it still felt like Whannell riffing off his longtime collaborator James Wan. With UPGRADE, Whannell has not only broken away from Wan’s shadow but has cemented himself as a genre director to watch in the coming years.

If Paul Kersey Was Robocop

UPGRADE, also penned by Whannell, is pulp science fiction at its best. Starring Logan Marshall-Green at his most charismatic (and at his most looking like Tom Hardy; for real, the resemblance here is uncanny), UPGRADE is like the lovechild of ROBOCOP and DEATH WISH. Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is an analog man in a digital world. He fixes up old muscle cars while his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), is carted around in a luxurious self-driving car. This is a future most of us envision, but Grey scoffs at.

The cast of UPGRADE (From left to right; Leigh Whannell, Betty Gabriel, Logan Marshall-Green).

But, when a car wreck leaves him a quadriplegic, he is secretly carted off by eccentric billionaire Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) to become the first recipient of STEM, an AI program. A chip embedded into his spine allows Grey the ability to move again. But, with his new ability to move, and STEM’s AI egging him on (voiced perfectly by Simon Maiden), Grey goes out in search of vengeance.

UPGRADE Is An Upgrade For Whannell

UPGRADE is Whannell firing on all cylinders. The world he has created is not wholly unique, as it resembles any number of science fiction landscapes. But, Whannell is able to mine as much grime and muck from this world of gleaming skyscrapers and police drones.

This gives the film a particular feel, that of older sci-fi films like THE TERMINATOR and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. He is able to give it that nostalgic touch without falling into the many pitfalls genre filmmaker find themselves in when trying to recreate that tone.

UPGRADE cinematography is also very unique. For most of the film, the camera stays tight on Grey, auto locking on his movement, giving the film bounce and constant movement. It allows us to feel as Grey does; like a marionette to his new AI’s strings.

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Talking about the AI, it’s inclusion got some of the biggest cheers during my screening. Grey realizes early on that STEM can take over his body. This results in some fantastic action sequences, seemingly taken from the newest JOHN WICK film. Grey is unstoppable in this mode, able to defeat even the most worthy opponent.

It is also caused by some of the biggest laughs. While Grey is technically the one making the movements, his mind is free from the actual battle. Many times through the film, he watches helplessly as STEM exacts ruthless revenge.

And the violence is ruthless. UPGRADE is a hard R, and Whannell brings some of that SAW magic for these kills. Heads explode, arms snap like twigs, and in one brutal sequence, ahead is bisected at the mouth. All the effects are done practically. As a result, the violence feels real, as Karo syrup is splashed across the set and latex heads are ripped to shreds.

“Who’s On First?” “A Bisected Head…”

All of this, from the violence to the humor, wouldn’t work if not for Logan Marshall-Green. Marshall-Green has made a career out of dramatic genre roles, like PROMETHEUS and THE INVITATION (If you haven’t seen THE INVITATION, stop what you’re doing and watch it). Here, Marshall-Green is able to flex his more charismatic and comedic chops. Grey as a character starts with a wise-ass, cracking jokes about how technology and those who depend on it. After his accident, he becomes a man focused on vengeance.

Grey (Logan Marshall-Green).

What could have become a dour film is instead brought levity by Grey’s shock and horror to his new violent abilities? Marshall-Green plays horrified to comedic perfection, as he is witness to STEM’S unbeatable fighting prowess. That horror quickly turns into smugness, as Grey continues to put himself in dangerous situations, and allowing STEM to fight off all comers. What could have been insufferable continues to be funny, as Marshall-Green’s charisma shines.

This comedy wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for a pitch-perfect repartee between Grey and STEM. Simon Maiden’s cool, collected voice as STEM works like gangbusters off of Grey’s panic and frustration. It is the classic straight man vs. eccentric type, not unlike “who’s on first?”.

Here, STEM remains cool and collected as Grey tries to comprehend all the violence occur around him. It is not unlike the unholy union from Frank Henenlotter’s splatter classic BRAIN DAMAGE, between Brian and his parasitic host Aylmer. The only difference is is that STEM turns Grey into a John Woo-esque fighting machine.

A Harsh Ending To A Fun Film

The entire film follows this same formula. It is fun and bombastic. Action and comedy galore, filled with both fist-pumping moments and laughter. This all makes it the more strange that the films end on such a dark note. The plot is thick and filled with twisting routes and shocking reveals.

The most shocking is the ending, which is such a departure from the fun that preceded it. It’s in line with Whannell’s previous outputs, as he’s akin to put dark ironic twist’s at the end of his films. But, after such the roller coaster ride that leads to it, the ending comes off a nihilistic and harsh. It wouldn’t be surprising if the ending gets changed for wide, with the one I saw at SXSW becomes the “Director’s Cut” version.

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Like A Lost 80’s Sci-Fi Gem

This is a fun movie. This isn’t an art house film or a heady science fiction film. This is a film for midnight audiences, willing to spill their 5th beer so they can fist pump a gnarly head explosion.

That would probably explain why UPGRADE went on to win the Audience Award for the best Midnighter, beating out the art-horror of HEREDITARY and the “What The Fuck Is This?”-ness of A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN. UPGRADE is the perfect film to see with your buddies while enjoying a 6 pack of your favorite beer. You’ll be sure to leave that screening smirking ear to ear.

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UPGRADE comes to theaters on June 1st.

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