A midnight-movie mechanic of considerable ability, Aussie import Leigh Whannell (best known as the writing partner of director James Wan) has spent the last 15 years tinkering beneath the blood-crusted hood of horror cinema, restoring classic models of the macabre by outfitting them with innovatively nightmarish new parts.
In 2004, the pair’s “Saw” franchise overhauled splatter tropes by reconceiving them as elements in a nihilistic morality play, one grimly relevant to a post-9/11 crowd wrestling with the ethics of torturing another to secure one’s own safety. Six years later, their haunted-house joyride “Insidious” managed a comparable feat for that faded subgenre, employing analog aesthetics in service of a story primarily about demons nestled deep in the psyche, both candy-colored ghouls and more unsettling, unquiet ones — the kind not easily exorcised.
“Upgrade,” Whannell’s second outing behind the camera (and first outside the “Insidious” franchise; he directed
No. 3), is yet another top-notch repair job, this time a kinetic sci-fi riff fashioned from scrap metal and human entrails, nervily updating Cronenbergian body horror for the iOS era.
Set in a fully automated future where self-driving cars warn their passengers against nudging the wheel, and VR addicts surrender to their systems as if hooking up to heroin needles, it follows a self-consciously anachronistic grease monkey named Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) who’s left paralyzed when a group of technologically modified nasties hijack his car and murder his wife. Offered an experimental chip implant that will allow him to walk again, Grey sets out to get even, only to realize that said chip is both sentient and able to manipulate his movements, turning him into a hyper-efficient killing machine — or, in his words, “a [expletive] ninja.” Together, man and machine make a thoroughly watchable buddy-cop duo — call them Cagney and LaCie — and Whannell wisely strafes their ultraviolent misdeeds with a sly comic zip.
The ghosts of “eXistenZ” (1999) and “The Terminator” (1984) may linger at its edges, but Paul Verhoeven’s “RoboCop” (1987) is the most obvious influence haunting “Upgrade,” whether one’s comparing their social commentaries or a parallel fascination with matters of the steel and flesh. It’s to Whannell’s credit that his film feels not like a retread of that classic but a stylish reconfiguring of its still-relevant themes, rescued from the genre junkyard and firing on all cinematic cylinders.
Directed and written by Leigh Whannell. Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel. At megaplexes in Boston, suburbs. 95 minutes. R (strong violence, grisly images, and language).Isaac Feldberg can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.