When constructing a modern film about the progression of technology, there’s a true danger of coming off as preachy. The concept of making a techno thriller often veers into condemning the mechanisms for its own progression and limiting the hubris of man to a mere spark for danger, rather than a consistent motivator it should be. Just watch something like Untraceable about a decade ago for the type of thriller that gets fear of advancement incredibly wrong. This is something Upgrade dangerously comes close to doing and then subverts in a wonderful genre mash up fashion. Writer/director Leigh Whannell got his start writing for horror films for James Wan like Saw and Insidious, which shows with some of the more brutal moments on display. Yet, Upgrade is decidedly more of a sci-fi/actioner at its heart and a far more intelligent film than what one would expect on its face.
The basic story would make one think this is a much more simplistic action film. You’ve got Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), a young man with old school values in the not-too-distant-future who prefers to keep his distance from advance technology like automated cars or implants as he fixes antique cars for a living. Despite this, he’s in a rather loving relationship with his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) who embraces technological advancement and even playfully taunts him for his technophobic ways. Their love story is cut short one evening when their automatic car crashes and a group of thugs attack them, leaving Grey paralyzed and murdering Asha. The quadriplegic Grey is secretly offered by a former client and tech innovator Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) to have an extremely advanced computer chip inserted into his spine that will allow him to walk again, which Grey uses to track down the men who murdered his wife, even if it’s against the wishes of Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel).
Now, the mistake from this point that most films would make is to make Grey seem completely in the right for his pursuit of revenge. After all, the film has already spent a fair amount of time seeing how much he and Asha were in love with each other & with how bitter and angry he’s become in his paralyzed state. The audience would naturally be behind him and his pursuit to avenge his wife’s death. Yet, Upgrade manages to take that inherent support the audience would have and turns Grey’s desires for justice into his downfall. It resembles more of what the original Death Wish story was aiming for before Charles Bronson’s own films turned it into a gun based power fantasy. Grey has all this power and he’s horrified by what’s going on. Yet, he willingly consents to the personification of the computer chip in his neck – known as STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) – to take over his body and do what he wants.
This is where Upgrade steers into the insidiously genius satire of our time. STEM acts as a representation of our daily ambivalence to the implications of an agreement with technology. How many times do we agree to terms and conditions we don’t bother to read through? So many different apps ask for our consent and we give it without much of a thought. Sure, the first time Grey does this it’s in a dire situation where he has no other choice. Yet, the actions that occur off of it end up horrifying him… and he still allows STEM to use his body as an instrument because he has tunnel vision about his quest for vengeance. The violence in Upgrade is incredibly gory, but never in ways that appeal to the main characters or are meant to make audiences to cheer. It’s meant to elicit winces and terror at the capabilities of STEM and other cold computerized calculations. Much credit to Logan Marshall-Green for his ability to make his actions below the neck feel authentically out of his control, whether in his paralyzed state or under the influence of STEM. He delivers pathos in his compromised state just as well as he does being controlled by an outside force, channelling Bruce Campbell’s knack for similar cartoonish physics with his own body.
It helps that Upgrade also manages to build a future from that shows the dependence on this technology. The advancements are all only there on a macro level as the grimy and underdeveloped elements on a micro level simmer underneath. We get the implication that this world has regressed in every other fashion, allowing for tech to serve as a crutch to lean on rather than a tool to progress with. This gives Grey’s dependence on STEM even more weight and shows the type of world building that Black Mirror often does at its best. Whannell even lights the entire film in a neon display that reflects a Blade Runner level dystopia of cold yet dazzling sort of fashion. The implications of this world also help to give more weight to other characters who hover around Grey’s story. Cortez for one doesn’t trust the drones that survey as much as she does her own intuition, mirroring Grey while also trying to hunt him down. There’s also the array of thugs with implants who have a higher esteem about themselves above humanity, particularly the effortlessly skeevy Benedict Hardie as the lead thug Fisk. Even STEM develops as a character over the course of Upgrade through Grey’s temptation of letting this soothing voice take over. It’s a temptation that even seeps into the audience thanks to Simon Maiden’s calm neutral voice.
To go much further would potentially spoil the fun surprises of Upgrade, which would be a downright shame. Upgrade is honestly the closest we’ve had to a Robocop level modern satire that also blended various genre elements in theaters in quite a while, blowing lesser satiric attempts like Ready Player One out of the water. It’s surface level fun enough to work for the average filmgoer. Yet, there’s an insidious element of apathy toward allowing our innovations to take us over that sits at the cold heart of Upgrade. It’s the type of passive evil that really rings bitterly true in 2018, where the evil isn’t the tech itself as much as it is our complete trust & lack of question about it. The machines shown here could be used for good in the capable hands of someone who doesn’t forfeit their ability to question when the tools present a quick and graphic way to get what they want. When we don’t consider the larger implications of such trust, we allow the possibility of sneaking take over from our computerized overlords and an inability to see it until it sneaks right up and stabs us in the hand.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Computer Chips in the Spine