by Ken Bakely
There’s something endearing about the bleak, unforgiving vision of the future in Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade. The main character, engineer Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), resides in an upscale suburban house – pristine, minimalist, and AI-equipped – but it’s the same place where the most secrets are kept, and the biggest dangers will always travel beyond the gates. Meanwhile, run-down city streets, bathed in garish neon lights, are almost more predictable in how those same dangers exist as a fact of life. It’s one of the countless ironies that the plot deftly accumulates. Grey is an analogue holdout in an automated world (his home’s design is more to the liking of his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), the breadwinner of the household), yet he’s fixing up an old car for Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), a reclusive tech billionaire willing to pay handsomely for his services. After delivering the vehicle, Grey and Asha travel back home in a self-driving car, which gets hacked in a mob hit – in the ensuing ambush, Asha is killed, while Grey is paralyzed below the neck.
Then the greatest irony of them all arrives. Eron clues the old-school Grey into an experimental project called STEM, a small AI device that, when implanted, can allow its user to exude superhuman strength and skill when it allows the computer to take full control of its host. Grey reluctantly accepts the offer, hoping to regain the use of the rest of his body. Immediately, he decides to track down the people who orchestrated the attack, letting STEM’s combat prowess slice through enemies with brutal effectiveness. Upgrade traces Grey’s journey from an extreme reticence to even acknowledge new technology, to a fundamental dependence on a machine that he does not understand. It has great fun in both emphasizing the absurdist nature of it all while finding genuine entertainment in its elaborate action setpieces. This is a sci-fi revenge tale on the surface and a vicious satire underneath, but Whannell balances everything out with a clear overriding vision, demonstrated through an always-knowing script and remarkable aesthetic accomplishments alike.
Marshall-Green is a capable leading man for this. He vacillates between humorous arguments with STEM’s computerized voice and impeccable devotion to selling every gruesome, B-movie kill, as Grey pursues his vigilante quest while attempting to avoid the increasing suspicions of Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel), the officer originally assigned to his case. Much is made of how Grey wants to distance himself from the carnage initiated by STEM, self-justifying that his body is the vessel for an intelligence beyond his control; at first, he’s flabbergasted at how grotesquely the bodies of his adversaries are mangled after STEM has had a go at them. Of course, the initially sharp line that he tries to draw between his own intentions and the AI’s actions grows blurrier with each part of the mission completed, and the question of who really commands his person is one of changing answers. Upgrade makes clever use of even those abstract concepts, building them up to a darkly ludicrous plot twist that caps off the proceedings with an ominous note, cementing both the movie’s messaging and its propensity for the most outwardly intense turns at every opportunity.
Sometimes this relentless overload can feel a bit much, but it generally comes together in fascinating ways. Whannell’s tight direction indicates his exemplary promise as a helmer of future genre projects. His script keys into the base thrills that it promises and delivers with immense dedication, and a tactful, parable-like handling of the story’s satirical elements – neither the location of the proceedings nor the time in which they take place are ever mentioned – add an intentional lack of specificity that feels like a way to avoid becoming dated while serving as a product of the zeitgeist’s current anxieties over the future. Upgrade’s multiple components combine into robust results. It revels in the grime of its cyberpunk violence, and critically, it’s a kind of scuzziness that exists at every level. Beyond the grisly sights of watching Grey/STEM spill the blood and guts of the criminal underworld, there’s nothing more unsettling than the added notion that our main character is ceding autonomy to an invisible presence everywhere and nowhere at once, until even he can’t tell what’s left for him to control.