How far are we from realistically introducing biomechanics into normal everyday life? 30 years ago something like a smartphone would have seemed like far future stuff, so is it unrealistic to dismiss the potential for body implants in 30 years’ time?
In Upgrade, set in an unspecified time in the future, there is already solar-powered self-driving cars. Yet this wonder of technology glitches. The subsequent and (coincidental?) violent mugging leaves mechanic Grey Trace a quadriplegic and wife Asha murdered. Enter a need for justice. Enter a reclusive scientist. Enter STEM.
From Blumhouse Productions (the production company behind Get Out, Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge, The Invisible Man, to name but a few) and writer / director Leigh Whannell comes Upgrade. STEM is an artificial intelligence-powered piece of miracle tech. It takes the brain’s signals and forwards them on to the body, acting as a conduit to allow Grey to walk again. Hang on! Artificial Intelligence, did you say? Indeed, unbeknownst to Grey, STEM is conscious and talks to him inside his own head. STEM offers advice on how to track down suspects in Asha’s murder. It lets Grey know how to pick a lock. STEM can take over Grey’s body in a life or death situation.
What follows is a movie which hits plenty of genre goodness. Part revenge thriller kicks, part cyber body horror, and part punch up party. After a respectful amount of set up time has passed (characters > tragedy > mission) the movie gets into gear. Grey (Logan Marshall-Green, The Invitation) is pretty stock as revenger characters go, but once he starts turning to STEM for help both mentally and physically then Upgrade comes into its own. It’s quite a feat of acting for Marshall-Green to remember robotically pain-inflicting choreography whilst also looking utterly surprised by his own body movements, but he does so and so ultimately sells the concept once the first brutal fight off.
It’s not just Marshall-Green selling such wince worthy actions. Director Leigh Whannell injects tons of energy and style into his camera work. When Grey gives over control of his body and rises from the floor, the camera rotates, locked on him. This approach makes it doubly clear that Grey’s movements are computer driven, from lightning-fast punch deflection right through to brutally efficient ending attack. Everything feels light on special effects and driven by practical in camera work, giving extra heft to each fist flying.
One downside to the revenger pathway is that it channels the narrative into a narrow flow of violence begetting violence. Upgrade doesn’t make any effort to shake off or embellish the formula. Sure, there is a suspicious cop (Betty Gabriel) who wonders how this apparent quadriplegic keeps turning up at the houses of suspects. We also get another bio-upgraded threat (one man killing machine Benedict Hardie) and socially awkward tech genius (a rather strained performance from Harrison Gilbertson) but aside from extra fodder to great action sequences no character gets much chance to shine.
The interactions between STEM and Grey are the bread and butter here, which the movie knows. When Grey coasts his wheelchair into a dive bar and asks one of the mean looking patrons to hold a straw steady so he can drink there is fun to be had as the audience because we know at this point that STEM can make Grey come out top of any given fight. And yet we also know that STEM is more of a co-owner of the Grey experience rather than dutiful servant. It isn’t long before the advice becomes suggestions, the suggestions become instructions, and the instructions become orders.
Upgrade gives good schlock and is a darkly comic ride with occasional flashes of welcome teeth gritting violence. After ramping up the stakes evenly through the final act it is a shame that Whannell switches to ending-o-tron option B in typical genre trope tradition, but with a lack of other characters to really care about then it’s only actions affecting Grey available to stick a landing on.
Much as I love my smartphone and as kickass that something like STEM could make me in the future, perhaps I won’t upgrade to the next model in 5 years and instead allow myself to enjoy the wonders of good old fashioned, hand crafted efforts.
Words by Mike Record