One of the things I miss most about my childhood is being able to enjoy movies that were kind of bad. Steven Seagal vehicles come to mind, but there were lots of others. Movies that weren’t good, exactly, and clearly hadn’t cost a lot to make, but nonetheless had a certain dynamism and visceral thump. They had grit before “gritty” meant a steroidal Batman.
Upgrade is a throwback to those movies, a sort of schlock action sci-fi thriller that’s heavy on the viscera and light on the introspection. Written and directed by Australian Leigh Whannell, who helped write the original Saw short with James Wan, it stars Prometheus’ Logan Marshall-Green as “Grey Trace,” a beardy mechanic who makes a living restoring classic muscle cars even though it’s the future. He doesn’t understand these kids with their bleeping and blorping, their sexting and their self-driving AI cars, and that suits him just fine. Until the day he becomes the victim of a seemingly random act of brutality at the hands of cackling thugs straight out of The Crow.
That’s when Eron, a boy genius who’s on the spectrum (Harrison Gilbertson) and sculpts clouds in his basement (I guess you kind of have to see it), makes Grey an offer he can’t refuse: to cure Grey’s disability with a microchip implanted in his spine. A chip that will not only restore him, but just might give him special powers.
Upgrade becomes a sort of poor man’s RoboCop meets a basic cable Black Mirror with shades of The Crow (RoboCop 2: Cyber Cop!). Whannell doesn’t have Paul Verhoeven’s gift for satire, but he does have a horror director’s facility for visceral gore and suspenseful compositions. The actors aren’t great, and neither is the dialogue—but the action is fun as hell, and Whannell embraces genre schlock earnestly, without the self-conscious winking we’ve come to expect from the format. Winking is an apology. Whannell doesn’t need to apologize for loving schlock. Upgrade isn’t the kind of movie you go to to think, it’s the kind that makes you shout and throw popcorn in the air. I’ve missed those.