Here we go once again on the Blumhouse roller coaster. The little studio that has made a ton of money has already had a ton of ink spilled about it, and even though they’ve put out too many pieces of utter crap to name, they’ve also bankrolled some of the most innovative horror movies of our age. Their latest film, Upgrade, is more of a science-fiction film than horror, but it definitely falls into the latter camp.
Set in a future world where many cars are self-driving, the movie stars Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace, an auto mechanic who builds old-fashioned muscle cars for rich people. He’s content to let his wife (Melanie Vallejo) be the main breadwinner until the day their self-driving car wrecks in a bad part of town, where they’re immediately set on by armed thugs who murder Grey’s wife before shooting him, leaving him a quadriplegic. After Grey attempts suicide, a reclusive tech-mogul client (Harrison Gilbertson) comes to his hospital room to offer him a microchip prototype called STEM that will replace the severed connections in his spinal cord. With the chip implanted, Grey can walk again, but STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) starts talking to him, telling him how to hunt down his wife’s killers and outwit the police.
This is the creation of Leigh Whannell, who’s still best known as the writer and co-star of Saw. He goes about this science-fiction film cleverly; this movie is full of cool futuristic gadgets like a kitchen counter that can talk and make drinks for you, but they’re all filmed with the same crappy aesthetic that we’ve seen from a thousand other cheap Blumhouse flicks, which somehow makes them more convincing. I love this detail: The police have cameras and drones everywhere and are awash in invasive personal information about ordinary citizens, and yet they’re still completely ineffective at stopping crime. Whannell makes STEM into a sinister male version of Siri, and he does it so well that I can forgive him not being able to pull off the ending (or giving his hero a name as stupid as Grey Trace).
You’ve likely seen Marshall-Green in movies such as Prometheus and Spider-Man: Homecoming, but he was wasted in those character roles. He needs a showcase, like Karyn Kusama’s underappreciated 2015 thriller The Invitation, where he gave a hellacious performance as a grieving father. Here he’s snappy and funny as Grey is freaked out by suddenly having a voice in his head, and he moves stiffly and robotically when STEM takes control of Grey’s body and has him fight the killers. There’s nothing quite as funny or as horrifying as the expression on his face as he methodically bashes in the head of one of the killers in the guy’s own house. Upgrade isn’t great art by any means, but I liked the comedy-spiked chill that it gave me.
Starring Logan Marshall-Green. Written and directed by Leigh Whannell. Rated R.