The majority of independent films have long struggled to amass gaudy box office results. Consequently, the major film studios have avoided putting such films into production and have instead turned their attention to more mindless, CGI-filled blockbusters and superhero movies. Therefore, Leigh Wannell’s SXSW indie selection, Upgrade, felt like an underdog as it debuted this weekend against other mammoth in-theater options such as Deadpool 2, Solo and Infinity War. And while Upgrade failed to beat out any of the aforementioned competition in box office revenue, the indie sci-fi’s strong showing reminds us all that strong content will always prevail.
In the not-so-distant future where a greater dependence on technology continues to mount a stranglehold on society, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is an old soul who prefers working with his hands and fixing up old cars. But when a brutal mugging results in the death of his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), and leaves him paralyzed, Grey is offered a second chance at life by a wealthy tech mogul (Harrison Gilbertson) with a groundbreaking, untested new form of Artificial Intelligence called STEM. Grey agrees to the operation and has STEM implanted, only to gain unbelievable strength and agility as he seeks out the men who murdered his wife.
Director Leigh Wannell has an imprint in the both the Saw and Insidious franchises, but he transitions to the sci-fi genre with his latest revenge-thriller. Upgrade circumvents obvious budget restraints by relying on a cerebral story and compelling lead character. And although the cast is full of unfamiliar faces, something that can be a difficult sell to audiences, the film appeals to the viewer in countless other ways. Logan Marshall-Green dominates the screen time and crushes every opportunity with an edgy and slick performance. Grey’s ironic quandary as a tech-resistant man who becomes reliant on a new invention is both beautifully scripted and wonderfully translated to the big screen. And on Grey’s quest of retribution for his wife’s murder, he discovers a dastardly primary foe that’s brought to life masterfully by Benedict Hardie. Along with its gripping story, a strong cast is essential to Upgrade’s success as a modestly-budgeted indie, and the film finds a plethora of significant unknown talent that deliver exceptional performances from top to bottom. In fact, the only glaring downside to this up-tempo sci-fi endeavor is how it makes up the rules as it goes along, mostly to justify an unpredictable and explosive finale. There’s plenty to enjoy with Leigh Wannell’s innovative and heady feature, making Upgrade a worthy choice among an otherwise crowded field of heavy-hitting summer blockbuster contenders.