With the sheer number of films being released, it’s easy to miss out on movies you’d normally consider must-sees, such as Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade. Written and directed by Whannell, Upgrade was a cyberpunk sci-fi made for $3 million in 2018. Ironically, it cost $10 million less than the film it resembles most: Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop.
Upgrade‘s story is relatively simple. Set in a futuristic world, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), suffer an accident after their self-driving car malfunctions. They survive the crash, but are attacked by a group of four men. Asha is murdered, while Grey ends up paralysed. Disillusioned with life and feeling hopeless, Grey attempts suicide.
Grey is then approached by a client, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who offers him the opportunity to regain control of his body through a revolutionary spinal implant technology called STEM. Grey accepts and undergoes the experimental and secretive surgery. After an instantaneous and miraculous recovery, Grey soon comes to realise that STEM speaks to him and has the ability to control his body with lethal precision. Naturally, he uses STEM to seek out the men who murdered his wife.
While most people compared Upgrade to Venom, which also released in 2018, it actually shares much more in common with RoboCop. It’s a cautionary tale about technology and who really is in control.
Much like Grey, Alex Murphy suffers a traumatic incident where more than half his body is destroyed. Unlike Grey, though, he actually dies from his wounds, until OCP revives him in the controversial RoboCop program, bringing him back as half-man, half-machine. Murphy’s memories weigh heavily on RoboCop, who struggles to understand if he is actually human or merely a programmable weapon for the police.
Without spoiling Upgrade for those who haven’t watched it, Grey battles a similar inner struggle. Who exactly is in control of his body?
Whannell, who also wrote Saw and Insidious, told Vulture that Verhoeven’s classic film certainly played its part in inspiring Upgrade. “So, with Upgrade, there’s certainly a nostalgia there associated with ’80s sci-fi films that I grew up with, like Robocop and The Terminator,” he said. “I love, and I’ve always loved, contained sci-fi films that utilise practical effects.”
While Upgrade didn’t set the box office on fire, it made a healthy return of $17 million from its $3 million budget. Whannell admitted that it was written as a standalone with no plans for the future, but the story will continue in the form of a TV series that Whannell will co-create with Tim Walsh.
Whether the TV show captures the same magic as the film remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that RoboCop fans should it make a priority to watch Upgrade if they haven’t. Sci-fi films don’t need to be sprawling $200 million productions—sometimes, all you need is a visionary director with an interesting story to tell.