With advances in computer/human interactions reaching levels that surpass even what we saw on shows like The Jetsons, with Siri, Google, and Alexa invading millions of lives, it’s not surprising that we are going to get more “fear of technology” themed movies. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey gave us the chilling HAL 9000 computer, which showed us that machines are not to be trusted, a theme continued with Mother from Ridley Scott’s Alien and the machines from The Matrix, then with updated versions of Battlestar Galactica and Westworld, all illustrating that if mankind isn’t too careful it could find itself on the wrong end of the evolutionary ladder. Enter writer/director Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade, a dark cyberpunk tale about a man who takes a large leap into human/computer symbiosis, where we are led to wonder, “Will things turn out well for our protagonist this time?” Well, going by the above examples, I’d say the odds are stacked against him.
Our protagonist is Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a stay-at-home mechanic who lives with his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) in a near-future city. His loving wife works for a major robotics company — creating state-of-the-art robotic limb replacements — while he remains home and rebuilds classic cars for rich patrons. One night, after visiting tech pioneer Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) who had commissioned a car from Grey, the couple suddenly find themselves in a rough neighbourhood. Turns out, their self-driving car has apparently developed an error in its navigational system, and you win a cookie if you guessed it, this “error” will lead to bad things happening, as a group of cybernetically enhanced mercenaries accosts the couple and Asha is murdered, while Grey is left a paraplegic.
As these were no regular criminals, even the advanced tech of the police is unable to track down the assailants — their faces electronically masked from the police drone — so Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) cannot give Grey much hope that his wife’s murderers will ever be caught. This is where Eron Keen re-enters the picture, as he offers to give Grey an illegal A.I. implant called “STEM” that will hook into his spine and acts as a second intermediary replacement brain. Not only does this device return the use of his limbs, but its onboard computer system is able to help figure out just who attacked and killed his wife. This is where the film turns into an awesome techno-revenge fantasy as STEM, who quietly feeds him information, helps Trace track down the villains.
One of the surprising “perks” of STEM is that Trace can authorize it to take full control of his body, allowing him to take out multiple foes with computer-calculated accuracy; he can run, drive and fight better than any man alive, but at a price. And what makes this film really stand out is the wonderful fight choreography that was developed for Trace, which Logan Marshall-Green translates so well to the screen; when STEM is in control, it moves Trace’s body around in quick but decidedly unnatural ways, not in a stilted “robotic” manner, but just in a super-efficient way, leaving poor Trace a simple passenger in his own body.
Upgrade kind of works like a feature-length episode of Black Mirror, showing how technology can go terribly wrong, and it’s this aspect that stops the film from being just a Robocop meets Death Wish movie — which is certainly not a terrible premise — but when Trace slowly comes to learn what the artificial intelligence which makes up STEM is all about, he gets a glimpse at the down-side of such a pairing. Of course, the film is not all doom and gloom and techno-fear, as we do get wonderfully executed sequences where STEM and Trace are almost a buddy cop team, tracking down and taking out the bad guys, all while dodging Detective Cortez’s suspicions that a certain paraplegic may not be as paralyzed as he’s supposed to be, and this is what makes this film so fun, as it gleefully twists the conventions of the genre.
The cybernetic-vigilante aspect of Upgrade is also handled superbly well, the near-future world is pushed just far enough to be believable, and the assembled cast all put in excellent performances, with the only real negative thing I can say about this film being that the mystery itself isn’t all that original; not to say there aren’t some nice twists, but if you’ve watched enough dark science fiction films or television shows, you may have a good idea as to whom the bad guys work for and what their overall agenda is. Simply put, Leigh Whannell’s film is a helluva lot of fun and it really dives into the dangers of our over-reliance on technology in our daily lives, but the big takeaway is in just how cool it would be to have an onboard computer in a bar fight.