In a future of increasingly sleek automation and virtualization, Grey Trace likes to stay home and fix vintage cars the old-fashioned way, with plenty of sockets, wrenches and elbow grease. A terrible accident in a self-driving car and an attack by four strangers leave Grey wifeless and quadriplegic. Confined to a wheelchair, how can he possibly discover the identities and motives of the assailants who severed him from his previous life? Enter... STEM.
Upgrade’s bare bones: Guy loses everything except his life; guy seeks revenge. Such simplicity can be an appealing proposition. But in Upgrade’s case, the carefully grafted world-building tissue and sinewy narrative musculature clinging to the classic thriller endoskeleton prove to be the differentiating elements that set this film apart from other tunnel-vision offerings, such as the recent Death Wish (2018) remake, as well as many a disposable science fiction action flick. In a way, Upgrade does for A.I. what Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012) did for time travel; it wraps up a donut of a premise in the bacon of a tough character journey, convinces us to take a bite, and then throws a kick to the gut. In the best possible way.
Upgrade is Leigh Whannel’s second feature film as a director and clearly represents a step up from his previous work. For one, Whannel, whose writing and producing credits include multiple series entries—and whose directorial debut was the prequel Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)—here tells a neatly self-contained story set in a plausibly conceived, compellingly depicted near future. For another, his skills as a craftsman are beyond dispute; from the sense of setting and psyche to the timing of the story’s revelations, all is handled just as needed. Whannel’s dual role as writer likely helped in lending an air of confidence to the materialization of his vision, which feels both refreshingly unassuming and thoroughly assured. There are no wasted moments in Upgrade’s one-hour-and-forty-minutes running time, and in today’s bloated blockbuster ecosystem that’s praise indeed.
The film’s setup, involving Grey’s banter with his wife Asha and their encounter with tech genius Eron Keen, is perhaps surprisingly soft-toned and gently-paced. Don’t be lulled. Things get nasty soon thereafter, as we tumble into a somber, post-John Wick world of roving killers and machine-regulated existence. A few scenes, particularly as Grey cedes increasing amounts of power to STEM, the chip installed in his brain capable of regulating his nervous system and movements, are as flinch-worthy for us as they are for him. There’s a clear element of body horror here subsumed in the science fiction framework, and the notion of wetware hosting reminded me of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999). In a sense, the way Upgrade wears its influences lightly is an asset, since it doesn’t weigh itself down with expectations of startling originality. Grey’s trajectory, for instance, wherein being broken is just one step on the path to becoming better than ever, recalls The Six Million Dollar Man and Robocop, while his imperfect control of his insane new abilities evokes the Iron Man films and Spiderman: Homecoming, along with some Bourne Identity moments thrown in for good measure.
Performances are entertaining across the board. After his methodically grim turn in The Invitation (2015), it’s nice to see Logan Marshall-Green explore a range of affects and physical displays, as though he’s simultaneously in on and out of the joke. He has lovely interplay with Betty Gabriel, too, who impressed as Georgina in Get Out (2017) and who as Detective Cortez oozes no-nonsense. Harrison Gilbertson’s take on Eron Keen made me think of Robert Pattinson as billionaire Eric Packer in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012), which may be unfair to Gilbertson and possibly even more unfair to Pattinson. Finally, Grey wouldn’t be complete without a lethal, smolderingly-unhinged villain, and Benedict Hardie delivers, menacingly charismatic and fleet as Fisk.
As Grey’s situation steadily becomes more desperate, humor seeps in with the bloodshed. After he leaps on and takes down Tolan, for instance, Marshall-Green’s delivery of the lines “Did you see that? Hmm? So you thought I was an invalid, but you didn't know that I’m a fucking ninja!” was absolutely priceless, as was STEM’s deadpan rejoinder. In fact, his entry into the generically deadly den of badass iniquity, and his polite request for attention and information, has to rival the famous biker bar scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Did I say rival? I meant exceed. Also leavening the violence, Whannel introduces some fancy camera-work during the STEM-powered fight sequences. We enter the irresistible world of first-person video game kinematics; the gravity of the situations, along with literal gravity, become temporarily suspended. Add to this Jed Palmer’s score, which effortlessly transitions from atmospheric and mournful during the first act into propulsive and industrial during the action.
In short, like one of Grey’s own cars, Upgrade feels attentively and almost quaintly assembled, rather than mass-produced; there’s love aplenty underneath the chrome exterior.
Genre viewers won’t have a hard time figuring out a major plot twist relating to Eron Keen’s role in Grey’s misfortunes, but the ensuing reveal regarding Keen’s motivation is fortunately less predictable and significantly amps up the AI menace. It also introduces a Saw-like element into Upgrade, in the sense that characters commit certain deeds as the result of coercion rather than free will. Minds, essentially, are reduced to cogs; motivations transformed into mechanics. As a kind of zeitgeist commentary on feelings of powerlessness and an inability to absorb even a fraction of a fraction of the information with which we’re bombarded, I can dig this. On the other hand, I also feel like it retroactively dilutes the characters. Speaking of which, Asha seems more prop than person. At least Grey’s guilt at his role in coaxing her to join him visiting Keen (“Can't lives on Won’t Street, lady. You're coming with me,” Grey insists after she declines) is realistically grounded, and adds a tragic contextual dimension to his trauma-induced suicidal impulses.
There’s also a somewhat distracting contrivance, namely Grey’s having to talk out loud to STEM. It seems like an AI as powerful as that could certainly interface directly with the brain, at least in terms of simple word-based exchanges. Clearly, this dynamic exists purely in the service of quirky character moments and a subsequent plot development in which Grey is tracked to the hacker’s address through a replay of him verbally confirming said address. (That touch, incidentally, brings to mind Robert Silverberg’s story “Dead Man’s Eyes,” along with some earlier cyberpunk precursors).
I applaud Upgrade’s Inception-esque ending. It’s suitably, wrenchingly severe. Thank goodness for the absence of last-minute redemptions or deus ex machina exculpations. The ending also works, I think, because it’s been perfectly foreshadowed by the glimpse Grey had of his wife in the hospital earlier, clearly a brief test run by STEM for the deception to follow. STEM’s placid intoning of “All I needed was for his mind to break” is chilling. More; heart-rending. I think it’s fair to say that by the film’s closing shot, with STEM in full possession of our hapless protagonist’s body, the lines between the artificial and the biological have been irreversibly Grey-ed out.