UPGRADE may not be the new sci-fi masterpiece that you're looking for, but it is a fun and violent cyberpunk gem well worth your time. The film's shoestring budget is plainly evident in its cheap looking sets and some less than impressive CG, but that micro-budget aesthetic works well in its favour.
This is a film that genuinely feels like the kind of awesome low-budget genre pic that was a staple of video store shelves throughout the '80s and '90s. Where a lot of filmmakers blow it by trying too hard to ape that aesthetic, SAW's Leigh Whannell has nailed the vibe (whether intentional or not) by simple virtue of working hard to get every cent of his sub-6 million budget up on the screen, as slickly and with the highest production values that his meager funds will allow. As demonstrated by almost every movie to follow in the footsteps of Tarantino and Rodriguez's faux-grindhouse trend, it's not about faking it, but trying as hard as you can to make it that does the trick.
UPGRADE's premise is simple: during a brutal attack that leaves him a quadriplegic, Grey Trace's wife is murdered in front of him. Some month's later a reclusive tech genius rescues him from the brink of suicide by offering to give him the use of his body back via the implantation of a revolutionary bioware chip. This sets in motion a spree of mayhem and carnage as Grey uses his new body - and its unexpected "improvements" - to seek out his wife's killers and avenge her death.
Despite its hackneyed storyline, this little splatter actioner that could joins the ranks of noteworthy cyberpunk by virtue of a philosophical question that lingers in the mind after the credits roll. It really makes you ponder the separation between mind and body, and how our bodies are little more than robotic automatons that allow our minds to engage with the physical world. An alien jellyfish that resides in our cranium and drives our bodies, like a pilot operating a mech suit. UPGRADE asks: to what degree is your body truly yours, and what happens when the mind/body connection is severed and a new operating system is installed? The truth seems to be that your mind is what makes you "you", but your body is just borrowed, disposable hardware that can be replaced, repaired and reused.
The film is anchored by three terrific performances. Logan Marshall-Green's physical performance as Trace is excellent. He really sells the idea that he is simply a puppet being driven by a separate internal force. The disembodied AI that drives him - STEM - is also brilliantly realised by Simon Maiden. In a performance that recall's Scarlett Johansson's in HER, his AI is by turns very funny and disturbingly sinister. Finally, and coolest of all, Benedict Hardie's super enhanced military cyborg is an action villain for the sci-fi annals. He's an absolute badass, and steals the show the whole way.
But philosophical questions and good performances aren't the real reason to buy a ticket to UPGRADE: if we're being honest, we're all here for the cyberpunk tech and the damage that it inflicts on inferior, fragile human tissue, and in that Whannell's little future-gore flick truly excels. Bodies are broken, sliced, ventilated and pulverised by lethal nano-tech, Cronenbergian body-guns and general machine strength, all lovingly realised with (mostly) practical fx. It's good meaty stuff.
Add to this a killer droning synth score by Jed Palmer, and a very original and clever title treatment that starts things off on a high, and you've got yourself a very nice little package indeed. Along with the likes of BLADE RUNNER 2049, DREDD, SPLICE, GHOST IN THE SHELL and ALTERED CARBON, the last decade has been a good one to be a fan of tough-as-nails, violent cyberpunk.
Finally, Whannell (who surprised everyone by showing up at Friday's screening, coming across as a very modest and likable dude during his brief but funny intro), is insistent and very proud of the fact that, despite US financial backing, UPGRADE is an overwhelmingly Australian production, shot in Melbourne with a mostly Aussie cast and crew. I'm proud of it too, another feather in the cap of our increasingly diverse and awesome genre cinema canon.