Lovers of high-concept, b-movie sci-fi cinema would have been perfectly content were Upgrade not much more than a narratively streamlined, giddily hyper-violent vigilante revenge fantasy, sort of a Death Wish: Cyberpunk Edition. However, Upgrade is also sophisticated enough to leave the audience with some intriguing questions about how much power we can give artificial intelligence before it decides that we’re a nuisance, taking full control. Of course, the premise of AI as existential threat is the bedrock for plenty of science fiction, with the most recent example in Alex Garland’s great Ex Machina. With Upgrade, we get a Cliff’s Notes version of this concept, examined in an understandably superficial but original way, and we get to watch a bad guy’s head split in half. That’s the textbook definition of a win-win.
Upgrade begins as paint-by-numbers revenge flick. Our happy family man but soon-to-be vigilante this time around is the technophobic (every sci-fi action flick centered on cybernetics is contractually obligated to have a protagonist who hates such technology) vintage car builder Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), who’s happily married to textbook Vigilante Fantasy Female Asha (Melanie Vallejo). Of course: A group of mysterious thugs brutally murders Asha before you reach for your second handful of popcorn. Grey, who’s left quadriplegic after the attack, simply wants to kill himself.
This covers around the first 40 minutes of the movie, which might make adrenaline junkies a bit restless while watching what seems to be a drama about one man’s struggle to fight depression after a horrible tragedy. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has proven to be an efficient genre storyteller, having been the Bernie Taupin to James Wan’s Elton John, writing for Wan’s Saw and Insidious franchises, even directing the third Insidious. With Upgrade, he confirms he’s a formidable voice in modern b-movies. He knows that a vigilante revenge flick has to front-load character exposition before indulging in non-stop action during its second half. That is, if the filmmaker gives two shits whether or not the audience can relate to a three-dimensional protagonist.
Hope for Grey comes in the form of Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden, mimicking HAL 9000’s monosyllabic speech patterns), an experimental AI chip that’s placed on the spine, allowing Grey’s brain to send signals to his body and let him walk again. Not only that, through Stem’s voice in his head, Grey can track down his wife’s killers, and through another awesome feature from his new AI buddy, murder the fuck out of them by letting Stem take over to deliver some out-of-this-world martial arts. As is the case with these kinds of movies, there’s a conspiracy behind the attack on Grey’s wife, and Whannel is more than happy to pile one twist on top of another. Some of those could be predicted before the film’s first act is over, and some are actually quite clever and unexpected. Even though those twists buckle under the smallest scrutiny after the fact, they’re a lot of fun while we’re under the film’s sleek and shiny spell.
Once shit hits the fan and Grey’s emboldened to bring the hurt to his wife’s killers, Upgrade pushes the limits of its hard-R confines when it comes to painting the walls with the gooey crimson stuff. As the writer of three Saw movies, Whannell spent a good chunk of his professional life coming up with increasingly messed up ways to off people, and he demonstrates that expertise here. It’s always fun to see an action flick with full-blown horror gore, especially when said gore is achieved through practical effects and top-notch choreography. Whannell also uses a cool visual trick in which Grey’s body remains focused at the center of the frame while the high-octane fights spin around him.
The philosophical AI elements that gradually take the foreground as Grey learns more about Stem’s mysterious genesis offer up a Black Mirror vibe to a flick that’s otherwise pure exploitation goodness. By taking the Dave/HAL showdown from 2001 and compressing it into Grey’s mind, Whannell finds a unique way to explore an age-old theme. Upgrade is not a game-changer, but it’s a great time at the movies for aficionados of slick and smart genre exercises.
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo, Simon Maiden
Release Date: June 1, 2018