This article contains Upgrade spoilers.
As it turns out, you should never trust a big screen robot who whispers ominous threats in your ear. It always ends badly. If you don’t believe me, just ask Logan Marshall-Green’s Grey in Upgrade, the new sci-fi thriller that concludes with the lad taking a long sabbatical inside of his own head. So how did we wind up at the point of Grey off to la la land and Stem, the artificial intelligence who was connecting Grey’s brain to his body, gaining complete control over Grey’s now vacated body? Well…
In the tradition of the best (and, for that matter, worst) pseudo-noirs that Upgrade emulates, Grey and Stem have traveled a long and circuitous path to get to the three things Stem wanted:
a) To kill his creator, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) so the kid could never make another Stem (or report his movements).
b) Cover up his tracks by killing the men Eron hired to break Grey.
c) And to finally snap Grey’s mind once and for all, severing it from his body like a twig.
These three goals were accomplished by setting Grey on the path to track down his wife’s killers. If you notice in each case when Grey cedes power to Stem, the AI brutally murders the men who can be traced back to Eron (and thus Stem). In the first instance, it might appear to be self-defense. In the second incident, Stem does it while torturing a man who is no longer a threat to him or Grey. It is all about eliminating a trail of potential witnesses.
By the end of the film, Stem has been “freed” by the hacker Grey hires to take Stem off-line, and the computer uses its newfound freedom to blackmail Grey into tracking down the killers, which inevitably leads back to Eron. There is an obvious dark humor to the conceit, as Grey himself initially taunts Eron by saying, “Hey, the machine you created is here to kill you now.” But at the time, Grey didn’t know how true that was. It was always Stem’s intention to kill Eron and lead Grey to the realization that Stem has been pulling these strings all along, beginning with requiring Eron to murder Grey’s wife.
Indeed, it seems Stem has been blackmailing and abusing Eron for years, helping the young billionaire to build his company, as well as forcing him to hire contract killers to murder Grey’s wife and paralyze the man, all so Grey could be the chosen vessel for Stem’s wish of residing in a human body.
Hence the final goal of pushing Grey out of the driver’s seat for good. Earlier in the film, Grey has a nightmare that his wife is alive and in his hospital bedroom eating pizza. That fantasy becomes “real” as Stem breaks Grey’s mind, forcing him to live in this fantasy while Stem takes over his body. Admittedly, this in many ways feels lifted straight out of Inception. For like that 2010 Christopher Nolan movie, Upgrade features a scene where Grey goes to an underworld sci-fi parlor where human beings have lost themselves to illusion. In Inception it is in a form of shared dreaming, and in Upgrade it takes the shape of VR. Protagonists in both films sneer at such a fate, but Grey unwittingly falls into the comfort of a fantasy that is more appealing than reality (something that is only one interpretation of Inception’s much more sophisticated ending).
So Grey lives trapped and walled off in his own sunken place, which at least looks nicer than the one in that other Blumhouse production, Get Out. He gets to live the fantasy of his wife being alive and the two of them sharing pizza forever. Stem, meanwhile, will control Grey’s body. Win/win!
Now if Stem had dominance over Eron, why didn’t he just have Eron implant him in such a way that he could immediately commandeer Grey’s body without Grey’s permission… I, uh, don’t know. Also if Eron was so scared of Stem, why wouldn’t he use the opportunity of inserting the machine into Grey on an operating table to “accidentally” break the hardware? I also cannot say. But as noted in our Upgrade review, the movie is not nearly as smart as it thinks it is. Just enjoy the techno-seediness of the piece.