Review: Violent Sci-Fi Thriller Upgrade Is One Hell of a Ride

In something of a throwback to the more violent science-fiction outings of filmmakers like Paul Verhoeven and David Cronenberg, writer/director Leigh Whannell (the writer/co-creator of the Saw and Insidious franchises, among other films) brings us the glorious mad-science actioner Upgrade.

Upgrade Image courtesy of BH Tilt

Set in the very foreseeable future (self-driving cars are more the norm, but not everyone does it), this tale centers on Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green of The Invitation), a guy who doesn’t necessarily buy into all of the world’s technological advances that is meant to make life easier. He still likes getting his hands dirty restoring classic cars, even if the work is more of a niche market than ever before.

After a terrible tragedy leaves Grey alone and paralyzed from the neck down (as well as a drug addict from pain meds), a world-renowned tech mogul named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) enters his life with a proposal to insert a newly developed chip called STEM along his spine that will restore his ability to walk. But really all Grey wants is to seek out the people that ruined his life and murder them.

Thankfully, STEM (which is given a voice that only Grey can hear in his head) is pre-programmed to go into attack mode when given the go-ahead, and before long Grey is transformed into a killing machine that even the police don’t suspect because Grey still pretends to be confined to a wheelchair. In fact, the lead investigator into the original crime that paralyzed him, Cortez (Betty Gabriel, who appeared as the housekeeper in Get Out), begins to develop feelings for the guy.

The action sequences in Upgrade feature a brand of fight choreography that is meant to seem slightly robotic, but also lightning fast and perfectly executed. The first few times Grey experiences STEM mode, the look on his face is one of disbelief while his body carries out some especially graphic and shockingly brutal martial arts moves. The juxtaposition of efficiently staged death and WTF facial expressions is particularly effective and quite funny, with Marshall-Green selling it perfectly. Before long, Grey is facing other fortified baddies, including ones that have guns imbedded in their forearms, providing some lovely, stomach-churning examples of mechanical-organic body horror for nightmare fodder.

Sure, the police work in the film seems a little shoddy, and the fact that Grey is specifically targeted to be a part of this experiment seems unlikely. Still,  Upgrade still works as a bonafide fun ride, and it’s a far better film than Whannell’s first effort as a director, the forgettable third Insidious movie.

And while his screenplay provides some not-so-subtle commentary on humankind's relationship to technology, the film’s only true objective is to rev your engines, get your adrenaline pumping, and your heart racing (and perhaps set up a sequel). It’s far from a perfect movie, but that didn’t stop me from loving the experience I had watching it.

Read my exclusive interview with Upgrade writer/director Leigh Whannell here
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.