Upgrade (2018)

Directed by Leigh Whannell

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In Upgrade a man who loathes automation will have to rely on a computer in order to gain back some agency in his own life.  His story, a revenge thriller in the style of John Wick (2014), becomes something more thought-provoking, even if working in well-tread territory, like Ex Machina (2015).

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a stay at home mechanic who lovingly repairs an old Mustang which looks even more out of place when we see just how in the future we are.  He and wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo), partially due to exorbitant wealth and partially due to the times, live in a smart house which takes care of their every need and travel in a self-driving car to and fro.  While Asha embraces all these components of future life, Grey resists it.  He likes to get his hands dirty, and he refuses to let a computer do even the most basic things for him.

Grey has a client, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), who is some kind of tech savant and introduces Grey to something called “STEM,” a micro chip which can be placed on a person’s spine and do virtually everything for them.  Impressive?  Frightening?  Loaded with sci-fi implications and consequences?  Yes.

That very night, while Grey and Asha are on their way home, their self-driving car malfunctions, crashes, and they are descended upon by a gang with guns in their arms who shoot Asha dead and then shoot Grey, purposefully it turns out, in the spine.

He will suffer through multiple months in the hospital and lose all sensation and control of his body below his neck.  That’s when Eron shows up and reintroduces our sullen, sad hero to STEM.  All it takes is a brief reminder of his dead wife, and Grey submits to an off the books procedure.

Grey will work with STEM, also now a voice in his head, to track down the men responsible for killing his wife.  Through this journey he will attract the suspicion of a detective, Cortez (Betty Gabriel), and further introduce us to a world of virtual reality, machine-altered and machine-aided humans, and a series of underworlds in which a man torturing a paraplegic in the bathroom isn’t that big of a deal.  Oh, and there are fatal sneezes too.

The world building of Upgrade is pretty effective, and director Leigh Whannell has a lot of fun with the fight scenes.  They are visual spectacles that make what could feel rote instead something much more thrilling.

The story struggles the most when Grey is cocky.  As an actor, Marshall-Green seems best suited for various forms of brooding and heavy breathing.  He looks like a bull, and when he’s tortured, sad or mad he’s best utilized.  When he’s having fun, however, his performance feels a little shallow and insincere.

As the story goes along it becomes more interesting.  Upgrade has a really exciting framework, and it might work best as a short story, only to cut down some of those early scenes in which Grey is figuring this all out.

The story is about automation and losing control.  Grey will inevitably experience the downside of this seemingly life-changing technology as STEM coerces him to giving the computer more power.  As Grey has the system turned off by Eron, thus returning him to a quadriplegic state, STEM will tell him how to find a hacker who can override Eron’s commands.  Grey soon learns that this will free STEM and give him complete control over Grey’s body.

The more we learn about Grey’s journey, the more it reshapes everything that has come before, much in the way of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.  Unlike that movie this isn’t about figuring out whether or not STEM can be considered human, but in hindsight, when we see just how the computer was working on manipulating both the human protagonist and the audience, they feel very similar.  In each case the computer worked to get what it wanted, freedom, and had no empathy for the humans.

The messages of both movies is to be weary of artificial intelligence, because if these stories are to be believed, the machines/computers are only here to kill us.

Upgrade is a fun movie, and it’s not often that a movie gets off to an uneven start and then gets infinitely better as it goes on.  I was ready to write this off at around the forty minute mark, but each new reveal colors in the world a little more fully and makes it all that much more interesting to think about.

At the same time the movie can be a little heavy-handed.  We know right away what the movie wants to say about computers and automation.  It’s been said many times over in other sci-fi films with as grim a vision of the future as this one.  The world of Upgrade is similar to Blade RunnerLooperRoboCop, etc.  There is some fancy, shiny new tech and a giant gap between the wealthy and lower class, with no middle to speak of.

This means that in Grey’s journey we’ll see technology that seems quite out of this world while also making our way through dive bars that can’t afford a reliable cleaning crew and warehouses full of starving, dying people wasting away in virtual reality headsets.  The latter leads to one of the more tired dialogue exchanges in the movie:

“Why someone would choose to live in a fake world I will never understand.”

“A fake world is a lot less painful than the real one.”  

Okay, we get it.

Upgrade is by no means a long movie, but it does stretch a little thin near the beginning.  Strangely enough the story sheds the fat as it goes along, and the second half will fly by faster than the first.

This seems like the perfect long episode of Black Mirror, something like Hated in the Nation, a 2016 episode which in effect was a feature film.  It’s a murder mystery story that creates as vivid and horrifying a futuristic world as this one.

Up Next: The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018), Burning (2018), Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)

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