This piece is from our continuing coverage of Sydney Film Festival over the next month. Check out the rest of the content here.
Marketed as an original, gritty film of the cyberpunk genre, perhaps a meld of Mad Max and Blade Runner, horror flick Upgrade set expectations high. It seemed as if the elements were there: slick yet low-budget visuals, a focus on gory, brutal violence, the impending doom brought about by technology’s rise—and of course a bearded Tom Hardy lookalike protagonist. It’s a shame unfortunately that some of these ingredients are missing or half-baked, however the film still has enough charm and moments of originality to redeem itself.
Upgrade’s narrative takes place in a near-future world where technology rules all and surveillance is incessant—camera-mounted drones scout the city constantly; wealthy residents relax in self-driving cars whilst poorer citizens are made to turn to lives of crime. It’s a fictional dystopia seen countless times before, but writer-director Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious) attempts to devise new and interesting ideas in the saturated genre.
The most successful of these ideas lies in the film’s main gimmick, a radical and secretive new technology in the film’s universe called ‘STEM’: an artificial intelligence implant that transforms the crippled protagonist Grey into a tactical human weapon on command. The only catch is that in these moments Grey isn’t in control, the A.I. is. It’s a simple idea, but it leads to some fantastic action sequences that expertly use the camera in ways few action flicks do, guiding the audience into the combat and delivering stunning choreography timed perfectly to each camera movement. The disconnect between Grey’s humanity and the A.I. also leads to some great comedic moments and actor Logan Marshall-Green shines in these, though his performance becomes less consistent as the film progresses.
Inconsistency is sadly the key problem in much of Upgrade, with some actors’ performances utterly ruining the immersion (Harrison Gilbertson’s twitchy, incredibly forced oddball performance of STEM’s creator Eron was especially jarring), though the blame could also be attributed to the often borderline cringe-worthy dialogue. A particularly harrowing example lies in a scene where Grey desperately needs the help of a hacker who lives in a decrepit apartment block with four strangers wearing Virtual Reality units. The hacker espouses a gloriously generic speech on how they’re escaping the dark times they live in, leaving Grey to condescendingly state that he doesn’t understand why anyone would choose to live in another world other than their own. It’s preachy and forced, a heavy-handed attempt to add thematic depth to the scene.
The visual effects also suffer throughout the film, and while this could be attributed to the meagre budget of roughly $4 million, last year’s genre thriller Get Out was made for around the same and was a polished marvel. The sacrifice of some difficult-to-render science-fiction concepts and some CGI with more focus on practical, grittier action sequences would have solved a lot here.
Upgrade is far from a perfect film, but also far from a bad one. It’s a picture that managed to check almost none of the boxes I had in my head for it, yet nevertheless ended up being an entertaining ride.