There are few out who would argue against the claim that the original 1987 Robocop is one of the best action movies of all time. Made on a budget of $13 million (given all the special effects and the suit itself, not a massive budget; but definitely nothing to sneeze at either), the dark humor, intense violence, and genuine emotions captivated audiences to the tune of a highly successful domestic run of over $53 million.
Since then the only a handful of movies have been able to generate a similar tone and atmosphere; most of them being other Verhoeven flicks. Upgrade, directed by Leigh Whannell is a better soulmate to the original Robocop than any of its sequels or the unfortunate remake!
There is a lot going in Upgrade, so in the interest of brevity, some things have been condensed to provide the main point of scenes. In the not too distant future, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a stay-at-home dad and part-time mechanic, who distrusts the computer/ robotic augmentations most of the population is doing to themselves. His wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) works for Cobalt, one of the largest corporations dealing in human-computer augmentations on the planet.
Driving home one day, the couple’s autonomous vehicle wrecks into a homeless camp. Then four guys show up and shoot Asha and leave Grey for dead. Months later, Grey, now a quadriplegic, is finally released from the hospital. CEO of vessel Eron, the client whose car was dropped off, has heard about the recent woes, and offers him an exceptional deal. STEM is the prototype of Vessel’s latest venture, which is implanted in the brain and will allow Grey to walk again. Its so hush-hush that Grey has to sign a non-disclosure agreement, meaning he has to pretend still to be in his wheelchair whenever in public.
“…a stay-at-home dad and part-time mechanic, who distrusts the robotic augmentations the population is doing to themselves.”
After looking over case files with Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel), the officer in charge of Asha’s murder investigation, Grey swears he hears STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) talking to him. The artificial intelligence recognizes one of the attackers as Serk (Richard Cawthorne). They decide to do some sleuthing since the cops have very little leads.
As the duo track down more people involved, Cortez finds it odd that so many scumbags with ties to Asha’s murder continue to wind up dead. This is because STEM can take control of Grey’s body to fight off the henchmen. Grey finally discovers who set everything in motion, which both justifies his greatest fear and turns it on its head at the same time. Does Cortez discover the secret of STEM? Will Grey feel whole after getting revenge? Is Eron as on the level as he claims?
Logan Marshall-Green’s turn as Grey Trace is nothing short of revelatory, guaranteed to be his most iconic role. The way his face contorts in disgust as STEM horrifically murders people registers empathy and awe in equal measure. Simon Maiden’s voice acting is fantastic, being able to deliver the dry humor without winking at the audience. As the odd Eron Keen, Gilbertson is good, if a bit understated for most of the movie.
Betty Gabriel is excellent as the detective. Her confusion over what the constant drone surveillance captures is believable, as is her empathy towards Grey’s predicament. While Vallejo does not have a lot of screentime, she makes the most of it and her chemistry with Marshall-Green is sweet and sincere.
Leigh Whannell’s screenplay lifts pieces here and there from other well-known works such as Robocop, as mentioned earlier, specifically in how it balances the gritty action and dark humor. At one point, someone is killed with a sneeze. It’s not like that person sneezed, and that is what kills him. No, someone else sneezes, and that sneeze is full of murderous nanobots who kill the bartender. This over the top, utterly ridiculous idea is played straight.
“…the ending, which is brilliant…leaves the viewer questioning how they implement this technology in their lives.”
It also has fun with themes presented in such famous titles as Blade Runner and Ex Machina, where the idea of what a soul actually is being the thrust of the characters’ quandaries, but is well written enough to not come across as cliche.
There are even hints of Jackie Chan’s disreputable The Tuxedo, in how STEM controls Grey. The vigilante aspect, from any number of movies, is well handled and does not feel exploitative. The script combines all these parts that have been done before into something new, something fascinating.
As a director, Whannell packs a wallop. This is a system shock top to bottom. Whannell handles the tonal shifts from scene to scene (in a few instances, line to action beat to line- Grey “STEM, he has a knife.” STEM- “I see that. We have a knife too.” Gore all over the place) with startling aplomb, so the jokes nor the drama nor the action ever trip each other up. He also ensures there is enough of a human element that the ending, which is brilliant and the only way Upgrade could end, leaves the viewer questioning how they implement technology in their lives.
Stefan Duscio’s cinematography is great; without which the action would not be nearly as kinetic and pulse pounding. Massimo Luongo, head lighting technician, creates amazing looking cityscapes that feel familiar and odd just by the way the streets are lit.
Upgrade is the kind of movie that gets the audience’s fist-pumping, then it gets them thinking, then it gets utterly insane, in all the best ways. It demands a rewatch as soon as possible.