Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/02/18 00:03:14

"Ready Player Whannell"
3 stars (Average)

“Upgrade” tells a story that is constructed from bits and pieces of so many other movies that Netflix could probably successfully petition the WGA for screen credit. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that a film has worn its influences on its sleeve but the better ones—the works of Joe Dante, for example—take those inspirations and run with them in order to turn them into something new and entertaining. This one, on the other hand, is content to merely play as an amalgam of too many movies to count—I can imagine film geeks challenging each other to come up with lists of the most references on display—and for a little while, it does evoke a certain junky charm thanks to its goofball premises, cheerfully low-rent effects and occasionally startling bits of gory excess. After a while, however, the lack of real inspiration begins to work against it and as a result, it runs out of steam long before its souped-up hero does.

Set in the not-too-distant future of smart houses and driverless cars but nothing that could possibly threaten the relatively low budget, the film stars Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace (apparently the future also has name generators that use the novels of Clive Cussler as their foundation), a decidedly retro guy who rebuilds muscle cars, drinks beer and just doesn’t understand all the technological mumbo-jumbo spewed by beloved wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo), who works for an all-powerful tech firm. One night, the two of them go off to deliver a classic car that Grey has restored for reclusive billionaire tech genius Erin King (Harrison Gilbertson) and, as most reclusive billionaire tech geniuses are wont to do, he shows them his latest top-secret project—a new and advanced circuit that could revolutionize mankind by installing it in gravely injured people to help them move through an operating system known as STEM. (Get it?) Anyway, while being taken home, their driverless car goes haywire and deposits Grey and Asha in a seedy area where they are accosted by a group of thugs who kill Asha and leave Grey in a wheelchair and now dependent on the very machines that he previously derided.

All seems hopeless until Erin visits him in the hospital with an offer he cannot refuse—if he can secretly implant the STEM circuit in Grey, he will be up and about in no time. The only hitch is that he has to keep quiet about until the time is right to reveal it to the world. Grey agrees and is miraculously able to walk again and even discovers a few side effects he hadn’t counted on—he can hear STEM talking to him inside his head and the system can do everything from override pain receptors to operating Grey’s body on its own when given permission. After stumbling upon a clue regarding the whereabouts of one of his assailants, he sets off to track him down and when he is discovered by the guy, he triggers STEM with grisly results. After that, he becomes determined to track down the others to find out why he and Asha were attacked while trying to avoid detection by both Erin, who is threatening to remove STEM if Grey keeps sneaking out, and a suspicious cop (Betty Gabriel) who knows that something isn’t quite right with Grey but can’t quite put her finger on it.

“Upgrade” was written and directed by Leigh Whannel, the co-creator of the “Saw” and “Insidious” franchises—two series that kicked off with undeniably clever takes on familiar genres that soon devolved into collections of increasingly tiresome cliches. This time around, he has shifted genres from horror to an action/sci-fi hybrid of the kind that were all the rage in the Eighties. He proves to be a good student of the genre—hardly a scene goes by that doesn’t play as a shout-out to some film or another, ranging from the obvious like “Robocop” and “The Terminator” to titles whose very mention would probably be considered spoilers—but when it comes to understanding why those movies worked, he is on less sure footing. As for the plot, it tries to transform into a mystery as Grey beats his way up the thug chain to find out why he and Asha were attacked. This helps to keep it from simply being a lunkheaded revenge drama, I suppose, but it doesn’t amount to much in the end because the mystery turns out to be anything but and the addition of a couple of inane last seconds twists are more frustrating than clever. Another problem is that are no characters that we can really care about in any way. This may sound dumb for what is essentially an action programmer but one of the reasons that films like the aforementioned “Robocop” and “The Terminator” resonated so strongly with viewers beyond the action is that we actually liked the characters and gave a damn about what happened to them. Grey, by comparison, is too much of a cipher to care about—he comes across as a bit of a self-involved jerk in the establishing scenes and even his great love for his wife is not established in a particularly effective manner. Even the secondary characters are given the paper-thin treatment, which is especially embarrassing when Whannell has gone to the trouble to bring in Betty Gabriel, who was so effective in “Get Out,” and then gives her nothing to do as the cop who every line seems to have been taken from “Bartlett’s Familiar Cliches.”

Of course, the action beats are the most important thing on display here and they are easily the best thing in the film. The highlight of the film is the first time that Grey gets into a fight with one of his attackers and discovers what he is capable of when he allows STEM to take over completely. Marshall-Green does an excellent job of suggesting a person who is being jerked around in a manner that is somehow both technically precise and physically clumsy and the topper is a bit of gore so sudden, shocking and silly that even those who don’t go much for blood and guts will nevertheless appreciate its execution. Unfortunately, the scene is so effective that it has the unintended consequence of throwing the rest of the film out of whack—since STEM’s powers have been demonstrated so exceptionally, all the action scenes up until the point where Grey goes up against someone similarly well-equipped (and you knew they were coming) are pretty much superfluous and while they also do not skimp on the red stuff, none are able to quite top that first bit of carnage no matter how hard they try. In fact, the only other moment in the film that proves to be just as memorable is one where someone is dispatched by, of all things, a sneeze.

I cannot quite recommend “Upgrade”—it is simply too derivative of other movies without bringing anything new to the table and it runs out of steam long before a lousy finale that tries to reuse the twist format that Whannell deployed in “Saw” and winds up fumbling it. At the same time, however, I must also confess that I have a certain degree of affection for it in that fact that it exists at all. At a time when it seems as if virtually every weekend (with the exception of this one, of course) brings about a new blockbuster determined to blow viewers away by being bigger, louder and more over-the-top than those that came before it. “Upgrade,” on the other hand, has far more modest ambitions and has nothing more on its mind than being a lean and effective B-grade thriller that might one day grow and cultivate a cult following. It doesn’t quite make it, of course, but it is a relief to encounter a film that limits its pummeling to the character on the screen and which largely avoids doing it to the audience.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.