* * (out of five)
Leigh Whannell hit the jackpot as a very young man when he and James Wan created Saw, and, subsequently, the Saw franchise, which has been very, very lucrative. Wan, who directed the first Saw, has become a highly successful director and producer of low-budget, high-profit horror genre fare, the kind of stuff that sells big on Friday nights (including the Annabelle and Conjuring franchises). Meanwhile, Whannell has pursued a less obviously successful acting career, and, prior to this, wrote and directed Insidious 3 (having written the original Insidious for Wan to direct). Now he makes his first non-sequel as a feature writer-director, with Upgrade, an Australian – American co-production shot in Melbourne, starring an American, Logan Marshall-Green, set in the United States, but utilizing a predominantly Australian cast.
The most generous reading of Upgrade is of a film lovingly paying homage to the original RoboCop and Terminator. The least is of a film blatantly ripping those films off. Whannell’s intentionality probably lies somewhere in between, but the result is a pastiche of other people’s good ideas while offering next to none of its own.
Marshall-Green plays a man in the near-ish future who, after an accident, receives tremendously heightened physical prowess due to a cyborgian operation, and uses it to pursue justice tinged with vengeance – a la RoboCop. Meanwhile, the low-budget design elements, tarted up with maximum stylised lighting and an intense, thumping, synthy soundtrack, honour the aesthetic of The Terminator, which was, lest we forget, a (relatively) cheap genre flick that outshone its constraints thanks to excellent craftsmanship (and Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Marshall-Green, a good actor, does his best, and, like Arnie in The Terminator and Peter Weller in RoboCop, manages to wring intriguing physical humour from the cyborg motif. But the rest of the film – particularly the dialogue – is juvenile; at times it really sounds like something a fifteen year old (male) would write. Some scenes, such as that at an “off-the-grid” bar for badass types, are depressingly, pathologically imitative – copies of copies of copies of copies, sad in their desperate lack of imagination. And one of the major characters, an Elon Musk type – called Eron! – is horrendously conceived and cast (I’ll spare the actor by not mentioning his name; I don’t think he stood a chance, given his dialogue, his blocking, the sets and props he had to work with, and the fact that he looks ludicrously too young).
On the plus side, there are some decent fight sequences, a couple of interesting design choices, and a story so simple you can easily have a big Friday afternoon at the pub first, or a few joints, and not miss a thing. It’s not too long, either; you’ll easily be able to get a Friday night meal afterward, and forget all about it.