It’s analogue vs digital in sci-fi revenge thriller 'Upgrade'

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green — Prometheus) is an analogue human in a digital world. He likes working with car engines, playing LPs, and eating real food prepared by human hands. He’s inept at operating the sleek technology of his home or the ubiquitous automated vehicles of this near-future world.

When his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo — Packed to the Rafters) is murdered and Grey is left paralysed in an apparently unprovoked attack, he is visited in hospital by Eron (Harrison Gilbertson — Beneath Hill 60), the billionaire owner of the ironically named software company, Vessel. Eron offers Grey a biological upgrade using an artificial intelligence implant, STEM (Simon Maiden — The Dressmaker).

Seeing an opportunity for vengeance, Grey accepts. Then STEM begins to talk, and Grey realises he has fantastic and dangerous new physical abilities — but who is controlling whom?

Upgrade, despite being a futuristic revenge thriller, harks back to the glory days of 1980s science-fiction — the body augmentation reeks of early Cronenberg — and it brims with intelligent, supremely executed ideas, yet it’s draped in a low-budget mood. This is not its only asset.

From the simulated opening — where a machine voice catalogues the film’s distributors and leads to the dramatic recitation of the title — Upgrade sets the mood: this is a film that’s not going to take itself too seriously.

The world-building is set up efficiently in a few scenes — gleaming silver towers and skies filled with police drones; anthropomorphised homes and voice-activated vehicles. Yet it’s remarkable, after some inelegant dialogue is disposed of, how gripping the film becomes when it focuses not on environment but character.

Logan Marshall-Green is excellent as Grey, channelling gruffness and intensity in the Tom Hardy mould. He makes the fall from lackadaisical, homely mechanic to vengeful assassin believable. This is primarily due to a short, sustained act where he must come to accept that he is quadriplegic.

His fear and hurt at his new circumstance is conveyed well in the gentle scenes with his mother (a sympathetic Linda Cropper — Little Fish), as she washes and feeds him. When STEM takes control of his body, Marshall-Green mimics a crisp movement that deftly suggests android motion without seeming overdone.

The gruesome deaths orchestrated when STEM is in control of Grey’s body are humorously balanced by Grey’s entirely aware grim horror of his puppet actions. The cool and HAL-like STEM, and his practical observations during moments of tension, are also nicely wry.

The supporting cast are necessary fodder to the idea. Betty Gabriel (Get Out) is competent as Detective Cortez, who becomes suspicious of Grey’s extracurricular activities when the body count rises. But her role is only to induce minimal threat. Grey’s vapid, corporate wife, Asha, is the only lacklustre thing in the film. Asha’s killers are mere ciphers.

But there are sharp ideas at work here using the well-worn but fascinating concept of man vs machine. If the machine is man, where does the control lie? If autonomous digital “thinking” is more effective, why is there a need for human emotion?

Director Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious) has chosen a side: in Upgrade, analogue is held in high regard — it’s not without reason that the first shot presents us with an LP cover and a variety of manual tools; that Grey drives an oil-guzzling muscle car; and that one of his first acts when he is “rebuilt” is to shut down the house and pour his own drink.

Whannell directs from his own script and it’s a clear passion project. The action sequences are well-choreographed, with some of the most exhilarating fight scenes since the aloof, stunning martial arts in 2002’s Equilibrium. The frame axis tilts when STEM activates — launching Grey up like a vampire — are unnerving and effective.

The script is polished with barely a redundant scene. Whannell wisely allows time to focus on the moving effects of Grey’s paralysis before giving him superpowers. With STEM, Grey may be a well-oiled machine, but his human abilities are required when the machine finds itself matched, and there’s some neat scripting where human intuition wins. Pleasingly, the satisfying, logical resolution doesn’t shirk the bleak nature of the story.

The film is helped greatly by a pulsing, threatening synth score from Jed Palmer (OtherLife), and Stefan Duscio’s (The Kettering Incident) lighting of blues, greens, and reds evoke the alternately sleek or grimy world with aplomb.

Felicity Abbott’s (Bran Nue Day) production design is a smart mix of the old and the new, utilising natural geometric patterns to complement clinical design. Her dressing of Melbourne locales cleverly conveys a realistic near-future of poor shanty settlements or wealthy excess.

There are logic holes — STEM’s abilities are conveniently vague when it comes to manipulating other machines; in a tightly policed future, would a detective really send classified files to a civilian? — and we’re obliged to wade through some clumsy opening dialogue, yet Upgrade is so well executed that these glitches can be forgiven. The screenplay is tight, the action thrilling, and the cold machine is juxtaposed sensitively against the emotional human.

It’s not just good, it’s exciting.

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