‘I’ ON CULTURE
In a season of blockbusters, Upgrade is a small-scale, clever mix of science fiction, vengeance and horror flick that works well. The suspense holds up most of the way, and the ideas behind the story seem fairly reasonable. That just makes things scarier.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) hates modern technology. While most cars in the not-too-distant future are autonomous, he prefers to keep control of the wheel. He is suspicious of the devices that seem to have taken over many aspects of life. He is a mechanic specializing in restoring old muscle cars; a nice throwback to the past. We first see him working on the cars, listening to some hard rock. Right after that, he walks into his ultra-modern house, where there are cameras everywhere and all the flat surfaces can become computer screens. There’s a house computer that sounds seriously like Apple’s Siri. His wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) is a big-shot exec and thrives in that world.
Then Grey and his wife are gunned down by thugs. She is dead, and he becomes a paraplegic. He vows revenge, but it is tough doing that when you are not able to walk.
Tech guru Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), for whom he rebuilt one of the cars, offers him a device seemingly too good to be true. He fuses a computer chip to Grey’s spine that will allow full mobility through the use of an artificial intelligence device called STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden). Of course, there are complications. After a short time, STEM basically takes over Grey’s life.
STEM takes over Grey’s revenge quest, feeding him intelligence that keeps him a step ahead of the bad guys (who are about as dumb as they come, but unceasingly happy to hurt others) and is able to take over his body and become a killing machine. Hearing STEM’s flat tones describing what is happening (which only Grey and the audience can hear) while Grey does incredibly gory things creates a great cognitive dissonance. Grey is a hyper-fast, incredibly strong, killer — all the while shocked and horrified by what he is doing.
Writer/director Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3, but more importantly wrote the basic short that became Saw) knows how to keep the action and gore going. There is not a lot that is new in the film’s use of violence, but things keep going faster and faster. One of the interesting elements is Grey’s horrified reaction to what he is doing; what he is becoming. While someone like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man makes light of the people who get tossed around (and we often have no idea whether being flipped 50 feet actually kills them), Grey suffers because of all the killing. He also is terrified that STEM is using him as a kind of tool in a game that is far more complex than the one he thinks he is in.
Marshall-Green, unfortunately, seems like the only top-grade actor in the film. His world is one of drugged-up computer hackers, body-modified thugs and computer-controlled devices running people’s lives. In many ways, the real villain in the movie is modern artificial intelligence technology. We already have stories of orders being made on Amazon because Alexa hears children talking about what they want. And at least one person has died after being run down by a self-driving car. We have pacemakers, and coming soon a similar device for the brain, designed to stop strokes, not to mention regular body parts. When do we stop being ourselves? Grey hates what the device does to him even as he enjoys striking back at the men who have shattered his life. His own self-doubts weakens his role as hero.
But if this is a “B” movie, it is an engrossing one. It is very noir; a lot of the scenes are in bars and rundown housing. Some of the plot is over the top, but it is so well done in the end that it doesn’t really matter. If you like this type of movie, you will have a good time. But it is not for everyone.