Leigh Whannell's Upgrade presents a brutal tale of grindhouse vengeance. When a paralyzed man is implanted with an experimental AI chip, he's turned into a deadly weapon and sets out to hunt down the criminals who killed his wife. Marked by cyberpunk style, dark humor, and kinetic action, the film blends sci-fi plotting with exploitation thrills. And backing up the story, this disc from Universal offers near-reference quality video and audio, providing an enveloping home theater experience. Sadly, however, there are absolutely no supplements included. Still, the film and technical presentation are strong enough to stand on their own. Recommended.
Smart assistant AI platforms are becoming an increasingly common and helpful perk of 21st century living. But while Alexa and Siri are great for simple tasks like playing music, checking the weather, and turning off the kitchen lights, neither one can integrate with your brain, control your body, and protect you from harm by turning you into a deadly killing machine. No, for that kind of functionality you're going to need STEM, the advanced artificial intelligence at the center of Leigh Whannell's Upgrade. A brutal and kinetic sci-fi revenge flick, the movie offers a dark and thrilling exploration of dystopian tech.
Set in the near-future, the story focuses on a grieving man named Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) as he attempts to track down the criminals who killed his wife and left him paralyzed. Though initially confined to a wheelchair, Grey is given a chance to walk again through the use of an experimental AI chip called STEM. But once implanted into his spine, STEM not only restores Grey's body but also offers to enhance it. Now armed with his own internal AI bodyguard, Grey heads out to enact vengeance on those who ruined his life.
Giving us just enough of a preamble to become invested without stretching out the runtime, the film sets up Grey's happy pre-accident life with solid emotion, creating a genuine sense of loss when it's all brutally stripped away. Of course, it isn't long before we're properly introduced to STEM, and that's when things kick into high gear. More than just a fix for Grey's spine, STEM is a fully integrated artificial intelligence complete with a voice and a separate consciousness. And if Grey gives the go ahead, STEM can even control the man's physical actions entirely, turning him into a deadly weapon.
This leads to some surprisingly funny interplay between Grey and his new "friend" as they get to know each other and Grey begins to discover the full potential of his upgrade. Marshall-Green does particularly good work in this regard, selling Grey's shocked, excited, and sometimes disgusted reactions as STEM takes the wheel and starts kicking ass -- fully selling the fact that his body has a mind of its own and it's not exactly a fan of restraint.
As Grey goes into full "Neo" mode with his enemies, we're treated to some frenzied and kinetic fight sequences, presenting a stylized sense of action that is both slick and gritty at the same time. Fast, fluid camera movements tilt and twist in tandem with Grey's superhuman maneuvers, evoking the visceral intensity of traditional shaky cam techniques while still, you know, actually allowing viewers to see all the cool choreography in the frame. And though not a non-stop gore-fest, the filmmakers don't shy away from some graphic moments of brutality, punctuating all of Grey's fancy footwork with some decidedly messy results.
On that bloody note, the evolving dichotomy between Grey's more humane perspective and STEM's conscience-free approach to killing leads to a few interesting dilemmas, examining intriguing concepts related to personal responsibility, morality, and the loss of control in the age of automated-tech and AI. Though Grey might not have the stomach to torture or kill his foes himself, he can simply let STEM take over and follow through without hesitation. "I can do it for you," STEM even chillingly says at one point in the film as Grey begins to back down. While grindhouse action is the film's main focus, the deeper themes hinted at in scenes like this help to elevate the movie above its otherwise superficial thrills.
Mixing elements of action, exploitation, sci-fi, and even body horror, Upgrade makes the most of its low-budget to weave a thrilling cyberpunk tale of revenge. Clear influences from films like Robocop, The Matrix, The Crow, Death Wish, and the works of David Cronenberg are evident throughout, but Whannell ultimately leaves his own stamp on the proceedings, resulting in a surprisingly original flick destined to become a cult favorite for grindhouse genre fans.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Universal presents Upgrade on a BD-50 Blu-ray disc housed in a keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. A code for a MoviesAnywhere digital copy is included as well. After some skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard menu.
The film is presented with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Marked by a slick sci-fi aesthetic, the film looks great on Blu-ray.
Shot on the Arri Alexa XT and Alexa Mini, the digital source is clean and crisp with only some marginal grain-like noise visible in some shots. Overall detail is strong, resulting in a sharp image with a great sense of fine texture, rendering every hair on Grey's beard and every drop of blood spilt during the film's gruesome action scenes. Colors are nicely rendered as well, bringing the gritty futuristic city to life. Eerie red and purple lighting also crops up in a few scenes, lending some moody saturation to the proceedings. Contrast is balanced well with bright whites and deep black levels with no problems related to crush or clipping. Finally, I didn't detect any notable artifacts or issues with compression.
Nicely detailed, free from any technical quirks, and marked by an enveloping aesthetic, Upgrade features a genuinely impressive transfer.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, along with optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles. Fueled by lively design work, this is a deep and punchy mix.
Dialogue is clean and crisp throughout with no balance issues to report. Conversations in spacious indoor locations even carry an appropriate echo that delicately reverberates beyond the center channel. Overall ambiance is wide and layered, creating a convincing sense of atmosphere in different settings while engaging the entire soundscape. To this end, directionality, imaging between speakers, and surround use are all very strong -- spreading passing cars and flying drones from the left and right, and front and back. STEM's voice also emanates from every direction, creating an all-encompassing feeling as if the AI is in the audience's head as well. Action scenes step things up even more with engaging dynamics and solid LFE. Car crashes result in deep thuds, gun blasts create permeating shots, and every punch and kick carries a commanding presence.
Immersive and dynamic, Upgrade arrives on Blu-ray with a stellar 5.1 mix. Though the lack of an object-based Dolby Atmos or DTS:X track is a little disappointing (especially since effects like the drones and various computer voices seem ideally suited for overheard placement), the film is still sure to give your home theater system a nice workout.
Unfortunately, this is a completely barebones release. We don't even get a trailer. What gives, Universal?
Leigh Whannell's Upgrade is a thrilling and kinetic cyberpunk tale of revenge. The movie blends grindhouse violence with visceral action, dark humor, and slick sci-fi visuals. On the technical front, the video transfer and audio mix are both fantastic, offering an immersive experience. Unfortunately, Universal has decided not to include any special features. But despite the disappointingly barebones nature of this release, this is still a strong disc. Recommended.