A gleeful cyberpunk action thriller with both old-school charm and a contemporary feel, this is a premium example of a filmmaker keeping their ambitions restrained and nailing their targets with gusto. Upgrade doesn’t really try anything new, but it delivers a hell of a lot of thrills as an R-rated romp that’s refreshingly standalone, not trying to set up any sequels.
One of the finest achievements is making what was presumably a relatively low budget punch well above its weight, effects-wise. The near-future setting and all its ultra-high-tech bits and pieces are brought to life with a brilliant mix of digital and practical effects. Nothing looks fake. It’s not a film chock-full of gore, but when the violent stuff comes, writer/director Leigh Whannell’s pedigree as co-creator of Saw becomes delightfully clear.
He’s clearly channelling a few classics here – think RoboCop meets Universal Soldier meets The Lawnmower Man, in a Blade Runner-esque setting and with a story that plays like a Death Wish sequel. No, Upgrade isn’t likely to develop a cult following as strong as those films, but fans of them will be doing themselves a big favour by checking out this new kid on the block.
While a pulpy movie like this doesn’t need a ground-breaking narrative to succeed, the storyline is where Upgrade disappoints a little. It’s all fairly predictable and ties things up too nicely, with an ending less interesting than what the preceding film could have led to.
There’s also an odd tonal mix as it sometimes takes itself seriously in sombre scenes, while others go for slapstick comedy and there are horror elements thrown in, too. Somehow, it mostly all works and it’s easy to see why this won the Midnighters audience award at SXSW – watching it in a packed cinema with a hyped-up crowd is pure joy.