SXSW 2018: UPGRADE: Leigh Whannell’s Action Sci-Fi Punk Rock Ride

The most fun you’ll have at SXSW this year

The 2018 edition of the SXSW Conference and Festivals is here, and the Cinapse team is on the ground, covering all things film.

For complete coverage, please visit

Nothing about the pedigree of Upgrade necessarily had me chomping at the bit to see it at SXSW 2018. Just this moment, for instance, I realized that I have been routinely mixing up writer/director/producer Leigh Whannell with other Saw franchise collaborator Darren Lynn Bousman. Having dropped off of the Saw franchise myself after the second film, yet continuing to see both of their names attached to lots of projects since the Saw era (most of which I’ve never seen), I guess I could be forgiven for that. I’m also on the fence about lead Upgrade actor Logan Marshall-Green. Disposable in Prometheus, really solid in The Invitation, and generally living up to the memes commenting on how distractingly similar he looks to Tom Hardy, it’s been tough to see where Marshall-Green will really stand out and make himself essential to the film he’s in.

Upgrade ensures that I’ll never confuse Whannell with anyone else ever again, and that Marshall-Green has what it takes to completely own the screen.

Produced under the Blumhouse shingle, Whannell shared with the audience that he wanted to make a film in the punk rock spirit of the original Terminator: reaching for a big high concept within a very limited budget. With total creative control, tons of budgeting constraints, and a pretty killer idea at the core, Upgrade absolutely bends over backwards (literally) to entertain its audience with a wide array of cool visuals, solid sci-fi concepts, and action set pieces mega studios could only dream of emulating.

Anyone who follows my own writing knows that I’m an action movie junkie. When the early buzz coming out of the first Upgrade screening at the festival indicated this was indeed an action film, I made a mental note. Whannell does something here with the action that can only be born out of a pure spirit of creativity and ingenuity. To properly gush, I’ll need to lay out the basic plot.

Marshall-Green plays Grey Trace, a man’s man technophobe who makes his living restoring old muscle cars for rich people in a future where technology has taken over and drones, self-driving cars, and Cronenbergian flesh-guns are the norm. He’s a man out of time, and when his wife is murdered and he’s paralyzed from the neck down in a brutal attack, he’s given a chance at a new lease on life. Tech overlord Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) has created a new and untested technology called STEM which will not only “fix” Grey’s body, but also function as an operating system for his whole existence. STEM begins talking to Grey, and they cede control of the body back and forth as needed to accomplish Grey’s mission of revenge. Or that’s what Grey thinks, anyway. Sinister forces are at work in this clever sci-fi utopia flirting with a future in dystopia.

In a remarkably physical performance that called to mind the likes of Buster Keaton or Jackie Chan, Marshall-Green takes Arnold’s Terminator roboticism to the next level. At first conveying the vibe of a regular bro-ey white guy, Marshall-Green inhabits the body of a physically disabled person in a way that was utterly convincing. Then once STEM takes over it’s Marshall-Green’s incredible physicality that conveys the entire premise of the film. Fluid and robotic at the same time, Grey’s movement through the world around him is fascinating to watch. Then he starts beating people’s asses. And it’s glorious. With a locked-off-but-moving camera and brutally efficient martial arts that evoke the robotic, Whannell and Marshall-Green craft several of the most striking and complete fight sequences I’ve seen in a long time from a vision-to-execution perspective. And I watch a LOT of action movies. It’s clearly Marshall-Green on camera doing the choreography for vast portions of the film, and the physicality of these sequences has to be seen to be believed.

Whannell’s script and realization of this world he’s building also come off largely successfully. The movie hums along and takes us on a complete quest with Grey. There’s some wonky dialog here and there, or some spots where the budget limitations seem obvious. But none of that matters when you’re engaged in the story and having a great time experiencing what Whannell is crafting. The sparing use of CGI mostly feels good, and the gory practical effects that are the results of STEM’s fight sequences are hugely satisfying (the shrieks and hollers in my audience were plentiful).

This isn’t some kind of seminal sci-fi master work, nor is the the most compelling or urgent film of SXSW. But it is far and away the most fun I’ve had at a screening this year, and this project is prime entertainment for a wider audience. If there’s justice, Upgrade will find a strong fan following and put Whannell and Logan Marshall-Green on the map the same way it distinguished them for me.

And I’m Out.

Previous post SXSW 2018: PET NAMES Deserves a Treat
Next post SXSW 2018: A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN Holds You Captive