SXSW Review: ‘UPGRADE’ – a sci-fi that’s not too far off

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

UPGRADE

Rated R, 95 minutes.
Director: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Logan Marshall-GreenBetty GabrielHarrison GilbertsonMelanie Vallejo and Benedict Hardie

AUSTIN – As normal as it’s becoming that computers, gadgets and cars are beginning to do all the heavy lifting in our lives, it’s still scary to think about all the possibilities of how technology will grow. Many films venture down these avenues and whether it’s the world being overrun by artificial intelligence or the act of uploading your consciousness to the web for fear of dying, the line between science fiction and reality is becoming increasingly blurred.

Leigh Whannell, writer-director of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, doesn’t claim that next big-budget genre film that will quickly fade. From the first few minutes of his deliciously spare sci-fi film, UPGRADE, it’s apparent he has assembled a thoughtful human drama that uses its big concepts not solely as a vehicle for action or mind-bending plot mechanics, but to also ask some vast ethical questions about power and our existence.

Set in a not-so-distant future, UPGRADE showcases the world driven by technology. It’s everywhere and steers our way of life to the point you’d almost expect Pixar’s WALL-E to roll up. But it’s more than people just having the best tech on the market. It can also be found within us. Instead of humankind creating robots to do their activities, they can put microchips in their bodies and equip themselves with firearms that, quite literally, turn your arms into gun blasters.

Logan Marshall-Green stars as Grey Trace, a quadriplegic who becomes a killing machine when he agrees to have an experimental computer chip implant put in him. Courtesy of Blumhouse Tilt.

In the film, a mechanic named Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, PROMETHEUS) enjoys the peace of not depending on technology and burying his face in the latest devices. He enjoys working on his Trans-Am and being able to have a relationship with tangible things. His loving wife on the other hand, played by Melanie Vallejo (WINNERS & LOSERS TV series), leans on her self-driving car to get her to and from places, as well as her means to check her emails on her computer-screened tabletop and Alexa-esque home operating system.

One day, Grey needs to drop off one of the cars he fixed up to some tech wiz (Harrison Gilbertson, who looks like he’s the reincarnated James Dean). He asks his wife to join him so he can impress her with this mysterious guy’s achievements and underground lair. She immediately recognizes him as Eron, the brainchild of a company that makes advanced systems and software a la Steve Jobs and Dr. Eldon Tyrell from BLADE RUNNER. His mannerisms and presence hint as something sinister, and from this moment, Grey and his wife’s lives change drastically.

UPGRADE is a fun movie and it’s easy to get lost down its rabbit hole of wonder, but I’d rather not spoil the excitement of what happens in the next chapter of Grey’s life. To keep it super brief, it involves an implant that gives him unique abilities — like John Wick-killing abilities. It’s insane!

It’s these kind of films that solidify their place in their genre’s time capsule. They’re not exceptionally loud, overwhelmingly explosive, and they don’t allow their sci-fi elements to overthrow the human story at its center. UPGRADE is low-key and big simultaneously, and it’s a bloody good time if you are fan of clever sci-fi premises steeped in relatable drama and b-movie action.

Grade: B

UPGRADE will have two encore screenings at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin on Monday at 9:15 p.m. and Thursday at 11:55 p.m. All ticket and screening details can be found on sxsw.com.

Our SXSW interview with writer-director Leigh Whannell and stars Logan Marshall-Green and Betty Gabriel:

Official Red-Band trailer:

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.