SXSW Exclusive: Assuming Direct Control: Upgrade (2018)

Director Leigh Whannell, best known for writing the first three Saw films and the Insidious franchise, moves his sights onto sci-fi with Upgrade (2018) a trashy cyberpunk thriller/body-horror hybrid that will delight fans of genre flicks and Ozsploitation.

Upgrade takes place in the near-future where robotics have taken over a lot of the mundane tasks such as driving cars and controlling the household. Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a mechanic who due to the aforementioned self-driving cars is part of a dying trade. He has an aversion to robots and mechanical implants though his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) doesn't share his disdain. One of Grey's classic car clients is a wealthy inventor who has constructed a next-level self-aware implant called STEM. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Grey becomes in need of the robotic enhancement STEM provides.

While this film is centered around a single (admittedly ridiculous) concept it does a great job exploring all the different aspects and ramifications. The absolute highlight of Upgrade are the action scenes which are filmed in a fresh and creative way that I haven't seen before. STEM can take over Grey's body to do all the fighting for him and the camera stays locked onto Grey's center of mass spinning and propelling itself forward in a dizzying kinetic style. These fight scenes are gruesome as hell at times, with each punch and kick feeling visceral and brutal. The crowd I watched this with was clapping and cheering during each fight which is a testament to how much they seem like choreographed roller coaster rides instead of a run-of-the-mill battles.

The world of Upgrade is grungy and skeezy, which is a nice contrast to the sterile, glittering CGI neon that inhabits most modern cyberpunk films. This definitely feels like it could be a lost tale from Mirrorshades and reminded me heavily of '80s era cyberpunk. It's low-budget but uses it creatively to make a believable world and there are several nicely composed shots littered throughout the film. I was reminded of Equilibrium (2002) which also inhabits the same 'high-concept with a low budget' space that Upgrade does. There are also liberal doses of Australia's patented sardonic humor infused into the writing and it keeps anything in the film from feeling too serious.

Upgrade is just a fun ass B movie with some clever ideas and a great premise. It's not a work of art by any stretch, but it's an awesome time.

Upgrade is out June 1st. 

--Michelle Kisner