At this point in time, I think its fair to say that most if not all of us are experiencing a tinge of techno fear. Whether its Facebook selling all of your data, or Alexa emailing your most private conversations about a friend to said friend, the paranoia revolving around technological upgrades is real...
...It doesn’t matter if you were born in a time when color TV was a new thing or if you were born with a cell phone fused to your hand, many of us are beginning to wonder, just how far is TOO far when it comes to technology? This is the question Upgrade attempts to answer in a flurry of gory action and chilling horror.
Written/directed by Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious), Upgrade tells the story of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a true blue collar mechanic living in a not too distant future where everything is done by machine, including self-driving cars and machines that will make you a damn protein shake at request. Detached from this techno-driven era, Grey’s whole life revolves around his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo). When that life gets turned upside down, Grey is left as a suicidal quadrapalegic, until a brilliant scientist named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), offers to perform an experimental procedure on Grey which will implant a device called STEM, essentially an AI that allows Grey to walk again by linking his brain and his nervous system. Its when Grey discovers that STEM not only has a mind of its own (voiced by Simon Maiden), but has given him the ability to become a killing machine, that Grey decides to take vengeance on those who wronged him.
Upgrade gets right what so many sci-fi action films get wrong, and that’s character. Despite all of the flashy tech and action (and let me tell you, the action is great), Whannell doesn’t allow the audience to forget that this story is first and foremost about a man coming to cope with a tragic loss. A lot of that credit of course goes to Logan Marshall-Green as well, who plays Grey with such realism and pain that your heart literally breaks for the guy at times. Its not all dark and dreary though, as Green actually has a lot of fun with his role and his utter disbelief at the capabilities of STEM. The first “fight” is particularly memorable since Grey has to watch helplessly as STEM brutally murders a guy, which the AI shrugs off with something along the lines of “it was self defense, Grey”. Whannell crafts a perfect blend of action/comedy as we follow Grey along this escalating rampage. In one instance, we’re watching Grey roll into a seedy bar on his wheelchair, and in the next, he’s kung fu fighting a gang of crooks in a bullet littered bathroom, kicking ass and splitting heads. Upgrade is loads of fun, and Whannell, who has spent most of his career in the horror genre, deserves a round of applause for stepping out of his comfort zone and doing it damn well.
You might be asking, so where’s the “horror” in all of this? Let me make clear, on the surface, Upgrade is NOT a horror film. But by the time you get to the twisty turvy ending and learn of STEM’s true intentions (which I won’t spoil here), you’ll begin to see that this was really a horror film all along. Hidden under the laughs and pulse pounding action is a sinister theme of what happens when we let technology take control. There’s something truly terrifying underneath the surface when Grey first learns that STEM can talk to him in his mind, an incessant voice sitting in his brain, poking and prodding like a tiny devil holding a pitchfork. More and more we see Grey letting STEM take complete control of his body during these fights. Imagine if you had to give complete control of your body to a computer. Would that make you uneasy? Could you trust it? These are the kinds of questions that the film consistently poses to us as the audience, and I don’t know about you, but the thought makes me cringe. Not to mention, STEM is so damn convincing, with his stern yet soothing voice, that I wouldn’t be surprised if he and HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey were VERY distant cousins.
I’m hesitant to give Upgrade a solid A, however. As I mentioned before, the action is fun and over the top, with some incredible effects. The problem is, there’s always something getting in the way of it. While Grey is hunting down the man whom he believes is behind all of this, Fisk (Benedict Hardie), he also has officer Cortez (Betty Gabriel) on his tail, as well as the creator of STEM, Eron, constantly trying to “shut him down” for violating the NDA Grey signs to keep STEM hidden from public knowledge. All of this would normally be fine, and ultimately I see its necessity to the plot, but unfortunately I found these additional elements getting in the way and slowing down what I feel is a film that craves a faster pace. Or maybe that’s my techno era mind strangled by ADD, but I’m leaning towards the former. I also found it to be a bit disappointing that in a film about technology and featuring villains “upgraded” with advanced robotics, we really don’t get to see much of those advancements used, limiting fight scenes to quick movements and extra strength. Sure, there is one moment where Fisk breathes microscopic nano-bots equipped with blades into a man’s nose, essentially putting his brain through a blender, but that’s just a rare example of some of the more interesting technology that could be used more, but isn’t. Knowing that these villains are capable of so much more makes later fights seem a bit anti-climactic when they come down to a simple fist fight without much if any use of technology, which seems important in a film that’s about the dangers of technology. These guys could be imposing on Terminator levels, and instead are just a few levels more intimidating than the pessimistic robot Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Negatives aside, Upgrade is a fun thrill ride that will hopefully satiate that craving for originality (and remind studios that movies aren’t all Star Wars and Marvel films). Amidst the flick's flurry of fists is a movie that should have audiences talking with what I think will be one of the most chilling endings you’ll find in theaters this year. In my best STEM voice: I suggest you find your nearest theater and watch Upgrade while you still can. It would be foolish of you not to, dear reader.
By Matt Konopka