Unease with the intersection between our bodies and technology is nothing new. Going all the way back to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ we have a strong cultural history of wanting to push the boundaries of what nature gives us and see how unnatural we can become with a little help from science. Leigh Whannell’s ‘Upgrade’ uses technology to see where it can take us in the name of revenge.
‘Upgrade’ begins with the perfect man, and the perfect woman, in a perfect marriage, in a perfect house. Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is an old fashion man’s man who likes beer in the bottle and working on old muscle cars in the garage. When his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), comes home from work in her self-driving car, we see that his fixer-upper must be really ancient by their time, and the focus on Grey as a relic is sharpened. They are very much in love, and it is easy for her to agree to go with Grey to his client’s home to drop off his latest restoration.
Dropping off the car, it becomes apparent that this client, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), is not just some regular rich guy. He’s the leading tech guru of their time, and comes with all of the social ineptitude that you would expect from a young man of that status. He and Grey are friendly but not likeminded, and neither really knows how to handle Asha’s fawning over him.
On the way home that night, Asha’s car goes rogue and crashes them into a rough neighborhood. Rather than the crash being the end of the couple, they survive only to be swiftly attacked by a masked gang. Asha is dead. Grey is paralyzed from the waist down. His life, as he knew it, is over.
Well, isn’t it am amazing coincidence then that Eron has a new super computer chip that will completely restore Grey’s motor skills. All he has to do is hand over the control of his body to this untested technology and hope for the best. Did I mention that this is all happening while the police are trying to find that masked gang, and failing at that basic task, despite drones tracking each citizen’s movement? What’s a man’s man like Grey to do but avenge his wife’s death while avoiding interference from those pesky cops?
As subtle as a freight train, Asha’s malfunctioning car served as a warning to Grey to not completely trust autonomous technology. Just like the car could be hacked and crashed, his new internal system, named Stem, can be meddled with and easily go rogue in its own ways.
I’m poking fun at the plot, mostly because it’s an easy target. Though the film could easily have slipped into being a greater ethical examination of augmented humans and artificial intelligence, it instead settles on being a fun and slightly silly action flick about a regular guy who must hand over the controls of his own body to an operating system in exchange for superhuman strength and computing capabilities, in order to avenge his wife’s death. Simple as that.
‘Upgrade’ would have been a laughable failure had it hit the wrong tonal balance between silly and action, but director Whannell and actor Marshall-Green manage to strike that balance perfectly. The action sequences scattered throughout the film are humorous despite being quite brutal. As Grey is going through his assembled hit list of targets who all helped arrange for his wife’s death, he lets Stem do the killing and that computer has no mercy for those criminals. Grey is merely a passenger in these fights, and the actor’s performance is quite perfect for the circumstances. His face shows disgust and alarm while his body is executing these executions with the precision we’d expect from a cybernetic being. The very physical role is played for laughs and keeps the film from being too serious or too morally cumbersome.
Though the plot suffers from a few distracting red herrings, ‘Upgrade’ is mostly successful in keeping the morals of the story light and the action moving. It’s just the kind of light brain candy we should be expecting in the early summer.