Upgrade came out with an extremely limited release in the UK at the end of August and beginning of September last year, and sadly I missed its release—it was only in the cinemas for maybe a week. The film eventually came out on a vanilla DVD, and I’ve been going back again and again over the last year as it just gets better on each subsequent viewing. By the end of last year, Upgrade was being cited as one of the best films to come out in 2018 by many critics. Second Sight was able to license the rights of the film for a Blu-Ray release, which is the definitive release in the world, not just the UK.
Leigh Whannell directs Upgrade, and it shows what he is capable of as a writer/director. James Wan met Whannell at film school, and they then collaborated on the script for Saw. Due to that film’s success, it turned into a franchise, and both were involved on the first three films as writers; Wan also directed the first film. They would go onto to collaborate on the Insidious films, with Whannell making his directorial debut on the third in the series. Upgrade is Whannell’s first project as the sole creative entity. It very much feels like a passion project, and it’s kinetic energy helps.
Upgrade is set in the near future, with the Poundland Tom Hardy, Logan Marshall-Green, playing Grey Trace. Trace has his world turned upside after an accident where his self-driving car’s AI takes over after meeting a Elon Musk-type tech inventor called Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). The car crashes, he and his wife are ambushed by a group of men, and she is killed. He is shot, with the impact severing his spinal cord. Eron Keen offers him a STEM implant after Grey is paralysed, with the promise it will help him walk again. It works maybe even a little too well, and Grey wants payback over his wife’s death.
The film most certainly owes a great deal to John Carpenter’s economically sensible but high-concept sci-fi/horror movies of the ’80s, along with the body horror of David Cronenberg. It also has the satirical edge of Robocop and its depiction of corporate control over one’s body. Despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, Upgrade is a fairly unique film with inventive twists, visuals and ideas about the perils of artificial intelligence. It has a great sense of humour about itself, with some almost Jackie Chan-esqe physical fights that border on the comedic. Marshall-Green also gives his finest performance to date, with Kurt Russell-like charisma as he delivers flippant one-liners, especially in the scene where the hacker “formerly known as Jamie” makes a point about not asking their name or gender.
Despite the film struggling to find an international audience (it did modestly well in the US), the audience has just grown since its release on DVD and streaming platforms. There have been talks about a sequel, which is inevitable, but I would hope Whannell would go onto other projects instead: Upgrade just feels so much like a self-contained story that a sequel is unnecessary. It’s also certainly one of the best films to come out from Blumhouse Productions, Jason Blum’s company, which mostly specialises in small-budget horror films. Whannell has already directed the upcoming Blumhouse reboot of The Invisible Man, and is currently attached to the remake (long in development hell) of Escape From New York, which Robert Rodriguez was slated to direct for a while. Whannell might be the better choice in the end.
The Blu-Ray from Second Sight is packed. First off, you get the Audio Commentary with Leigh Whannell which previously was only on the Australian Blu-Ray. The disc’s producer, Phillip Escott, was able to film almost an hour and a half of interviews with crew members, Whannell is interviewed for around half an hour, and producer Kylie Du Fresne, cinematographer Stefan Duscio, editor Andy Canny, and fight choreographer Chris Weir round off the rest—they are all interesting, engaging interviews. The release comes in a sturdy hardcase with a booklet containing new essays by Jon Towlson and Scott Harrison, and even a poster of the cover art.