Science fiction trappings are often used to tell stories grounded in the real world, and they typically come in the form of cautionary tales about the future. Writer/director Leigh Whannell (Insidious, Saw) knows this as well as anyone despite having a filmography focused almost exclusively on the horror genre. (The exception is 2014’s dark comedy The Mule which is still very much worth seeking out.) Whannell’s latest film, Upgrade, pairs his strengths — grisly humor, grislier violence — with a warning about the near future technological advances we’re rushing towards so blindly.
Artificial intelligence and human/machine hybrids are the new normal, but while most people walk around with electronic enhancements or drive around in self-driving cars, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, The Invitation) is the rare Luddite. He’s a grease monkey spending his days restoring “old” muscle cars for wealthy clients like Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), a younger, more anti-social Elon Musk with bleached blond hair, but Grey’s preference for the old-school life comes crashing down after he and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) crash in her automated car. Thugs arrive almost immediately leaving her dead and him paralyzed from the neck down.
With both his wife and his tangible appreciation for life gone, Grey’s ready to give up the ghost… but then Eron arrives offering a second chance. His latest creation, a microchip called Stem, promises to restore Grey’s body back to 100% functionality, and all he has to do is sign on the dotted line. Restored to health, Grey soon discovers Stem’s other abilities are equally impressive, albeit a bit more mischievous, secretive, and murderous.
If the self-driving car accident was Upgrade‘s first warning against technology Grey’s failure to read the fine print is the second. From there it’s a virtual free for all as the dark side of computer hacking, drone surveillance, nanotechnology, AI, and more are made clear in the service of a rip-roaring (and flesh-ripping) tale of revenge.
Stem can take control of Grey’s body when he gives verbal approval, and it turns him into a methodical fighting machine displaying lightning quick reflexes and deadly moves — one bit involving a butcher knife nearly bisecting a bad guy’s head is especially gnarly. These sequences are the film’s most electric and exciting, and Whannell crafts them with terrific care. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio‘s camera follows Grey with acrobatic precision which ups the visual style and thrills even further.
Just as important, though, is Marshall-Green’s performance. He can be a deceptively sedate actor while delivering dialogue, but as a physical performer, he shows even greater skill. Imagine an R-rated take on Jackie Chan’s The Tuxedo, and you’ll have an idea what to expect here as Grey’s limbs move with automated discipline and Marshall-Green’s face looks on in horror. The sequences become multi-layered in their entertainment value — viewers win whether they watch the kinetic action and gore or stay focused on his emotionally turbulent face.
The film’s world-building does a solid job landing one foot each in the present and the future. AI is a part of almost everyone’s life, both at home and in public, but it’s still a living, breathing world recognizable as our own with unobtrusive blasts of speculative fiction. One minute a baddie is killing someone with a weaponized sneeze, and the next the detective (Betty Gabriel) investigating Asha’s murder is shown with a tape recorder. It feels lived in and far from artificial.
The mystery in Whannell’s script ultimately takes a back seat to the bloody fun of Grey’s hunt for those responsible for his wife’s murder. There are turns both expected and mildly surprising, but while they don’t elevate the experience they also don’t get in the way of it. Whannell’s too smart of a genre fan to allow for that, and as he blends inspirations as diverse as Street Hawk, Angel Heart, and Her the end result is a movie that — like its own characters — builds something new and exciting from pre-existing parts.
“The key is to let it grow into itself,” says Eron about Grey’s new electronic friend Stem, and the same can easily be said about Upgrade. It starts with the familiar before finding its own bloody groove. Now who do we have to sneeze on to get an Upgrade 2.0?