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Film Review: Upgrade

In the wash of film releases, sometimes things can go unnoticed. There is often plenty of reasons why this happens, and there’s nothing worse than a film that is really up your street, getting a limited release, and you miss it, and then someone tells you it’s brilliant. Well Upgrade might be that film.

Written and directed by Leigh Whanell, this is a near future sci-fi thriller, filled with some ultra violence, nice effects and a mystery at it’s center, that you will probably guess in the first act, but that’s not important. The whole thing looks like an extended movie version of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, and owes a lot to plenty of low budget sci-fi movies from the 90’s. The premise sees the brutal assault of a husband and wife that leaves the wife dead, and the husband, played by Logan Marshall-Green, paralyzed. However, cue mad millennial scientist with a solution to the problem, and the revenge can commence.

Things start pretty quickly in Upgrade, a feature that runs through the entire screenplay. Once we get over the establishing scenes, Whannell keeps everything moving forward, introducing who we need to know and what their roles are going to be, very succinctly. Happily though, there is quite a nice line in world building here. We are aware of the advanced tech early on, and we see that in the gadgets on display. Driverless cars, police enforced drones, table top computer screens, it’s all there on display and because it’s stuff we’ve all became accustomed to, it never feels too over the top. Later on when we see the extent of the more advanced secret bio-tech, we buy into it a little more as they’ve warmed us up on the way in. There’s some nice visuals too. For it’s estimated $5 million budget, we get some Bladerunner style cityscapes and some nice action sequences. The fight scenes are well done, and play on the humorous side of the whole situation, and there’s quite a bit of gore shown onscreen, giving it a 15 rating.

Now, before this get’s too gushy, there are some major problems too. Some of the acting borders on comical, and there’s some real dialogue issues as well. Characters often speak in cliches, and a bit more time could have been taken to flesh things out a bit more. We have loving husband and wife, he loves his car and avoids tech, while the Mrs works for a tech company but they get on just fine, meanwhile we have crazy youthful anti-social head of a major company and sassy black female cop all thrown into the 2 dimensional mix. Oddly though, due to the production style, this lack of depth is somehow forgivable – you find yourself glazing over while watching Upgrade, but in a good way. It’s a quirky but likable film and I think it will probably find it’s audience after it’s theatrical release.

There’s a brilliant YouTube channel called Good Bad Flicks, and Cecil, who’s behind it’s success, revels in finding obscure, often sci-fi related, movies from the 70’s 80’s and 90’s. He reviews them with tongue firmly in cheek, but despite all their flaws, you can tell he has nothing but love for those old oddities. Upgrade strikes me as a perfect film for his channel. It’s never going to win any awards, but it’s entertaining, fast moving and filled with sci-fi tropes that fans of the genre will delight in. Yes, we may have seen it all before, and often better, but Upgrade seems to know what it is, and plays to it’s strengths. Sure there are issues, but you have to just admire the sheer scope of what it’s doing with the budget that it’s been given.

It will have it’s haters, but it’s a piece of modern schlock cinema the likes of which I haven’t seen for a long time, and while I won’t be returning for a second viewing at the cinema, when it hits Netflix, I’ll probably have a night in with some friends, some beer and a pizza and have a great second run at it.

Rating: 6 out of 10