Upgrade sits right on this fault line. It’s a clever, low-budget Aussie movie by horror-meister Leigh Whannell, who co-created the phenomenally successful Saw series with James Wan. They did it again with the Insidious franchise.
Here, Whannell works without Wan. It’s his second outing as a writer/director (after Insidious: Chapter 3) and it’s an efficiently made hybrid: a sci-fi action horror movie that dresses itself in American accents and conventions to maximise its appeal. Its cars drive on the right and there’s nothing except vegetation to give away the ruse.
It takes Whannell away from his discomfort zone: less gore than Saw, and no ghosts. In fact, it’s more like a cyborg western – a budget Bladerunner, or thrifty Terminator, but more bloody.
An attractive young couple in the near future are travelling in a driverless vehicle. He’s a bearded Luddite who works on old “analogue” cars; she’s a high-flying tech executive.
I can’t really avoid giving up some key story points here: the driverless technology malfunctions and Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is left quadriplegic. His wife (Melanie Vallejo) is dead, but not because of the accident. Some bad guys pulled her from the wreckage, next to a kind of future shantytown, and killed her before his eyes.
Trace, in a wheelchair, wants his revenge. The mechanism for that is a tiny chip, planted in the back of the neck. It will restore your power to walk and give you increased strength, says the eccentric computer whiz kid who offers him the prototype. Harrison Gilbertson, who plays this billionaire inventor, looks about 12, which somehow seems credible. The chip is called STEM, and we can all guess where this is going.
The film’s most skilful attributes are its excellent cyber-fighting sequences, in which Marshall-Green moves like a robot Jackie Chan, and its inventive use of poverty. Whannell knows how to make 10 dollars look like a hundred. He’s been doing it since film school – although one wonders why he still has to, given the success of his other work.
The answer, of course, is that a sentient action movie with no stars, filmed in Melbourne, even by Whannell, is always going to be a Poverty Row production. Marshall-Green does a good job as Trace, but the big money doesn’t care. It would rather have a wooden star than a talented newcomer, so it moves on.
Whannell’s script is fairly tongue-in-cheek. STEM has its own voice, speaking directly to Trace’s brain, allowing for some black humour. That’s useful, because a movie full of Trace simply hunting down and killing people would be dull, even when he does it with verve and a fashionable lack of mercy.
Benedict Hardie, thin-faced and rat-like, does a decent job as Fisk, the main adversary, while Betty Gabriel is underused as Cortez, a cop who suspects the man in the wheelchair is not what he seems.
None of these roles has much depth and that’s the main problem. There’s not enough humanity here to lift the material to the next level, where we are not just engaged by the ideas, but moved by the characters. Grey Trace turns out to be better-named than he ought to be.