It seems as we inch ever closer to the day of actual sentient artificial intelligence—the point of supposed “singularity”—we are getting glummer and more morose about our movie robots. While the ultimate cybernetic menace remains 1968’s HAL 9000 and his snootiness about who can and cannot come in, by and large we used to enjoy our robotic brethren, naming them things like “Robby” and “R2,” and “Rachael.” At least this weekend’s Upgrade tries to have it both ways by introducing a new technological marvel in “Stem,” an AI doohickey that can attach to your broken spine and give you the ability to walk… and perform kung fu. So while he might be low key shady in his insidious conquest of your autonomy, at least he’ll make you look good while doing it!
Such is the pulpy and generally amusing conceit of Upgrade, a science fiction film from Leigh Whannell and Blumhouse Productions. The film is not nearly as smart as it could have been, or even seems to think it is, yet it still makes for an enjoyable B-movie, right down to its questionable acting and wholly unconvincing science. Ex Machina, it ain’t, but this attempt at Paul Verhoeven-lite reminds us of a time when sci-fi could also be seductively seedy in its conceits—fluffing the pillow in the coffin our robo-overlords are laying us down in.
Set in a not-so-distant future where self-driving cars get you where you want to go, Upgrade is about a salt of the earth sonofabitch named Grey (Logan Marshall-Green). And we know Grey is old school cool because he’s introduced fixing up the engine on his mid-20th century sports car while drinking a beer just as his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) has her fancy-schmancy automated vehicle drive her home. This marriage—one between a glorified mechanic and a corporate climber in the cybernetic limb-replacement industry—makes about as much sense as The Honeymooners, but theirs is a sweet and idyllic romance.
So it of course has to end brutally. Faster than you can say Charles Bronson, a gang of hooligans led by Fisk (Benedict Hardie) fridge Asha in a needlessly violent and gross scene that also leaves Grey paralyzed from the neck down. With the cops unable to find the punks who put his wife on ice, Grey is near suicidal while trapped in his glossy, computerized home. That is until an old client who paid him to upgrade a Detroit classic comes calling. Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) is a reclusive mad scientist type with Mark Zuckerberg money. And wouldn’t you know, he has created a computer chip that can be attached to Grey’s spine and that will allow him complete motor functions.
This computer, which calls itself “Stem” (voiced by Simon Maiden), is where the real fun of the film starts. Stem, for purely deferential reasons mind you, wishes to help Grey find the men responsible for this wife’s murder. Able to heighten not only Grey’s dexterity, but even his eyesight, his cognitive abilities, and eventually martial arts skills, Stem turns a generic setup into a delightful thriller bordering on grindhouse. Slowly, Stem convinces Grey to give the machine more and more control over his body, allowing them to fight punks, solve crimes, and evade the fuzz. This is obviously going to end terribly for Grey, but if all he has is a devil on his shoulder (and inside his head), at least that means we’ll all have some fun before the bill comes due.
As a movie, there is something deliciously low rent about the last two-thirds of Upgrade. Whannell has always had a knack for discovering terrific genre hooks in his films (he co-created the Saw and Insidious franchises before graduating to director on Insidious: Chapter 3). And that intuition serves him well here. Allowed to wallow in a grime that owes as much to Death Wish and RoboCop as it does 2001: A Space Odyssey, Whannell and Jason Blum’s low budget but high ambition mostly serves up gleeful and sadistic thrills.
Most of the stunts and special effects in the film are done in-camera and with a propulsive cruelty that maximizes the violence and visceral revulsion. Leaning heavily into the shock gore of Saw, the film is a hard R, and yet keeps the the gratuitousness to such fleeting flashes that it avoids being truly grotesque. Instead it adds to the character of a film that has a blast building a world obsessed with all the wacky things cybernetic enhancements can achieve. Indeed, Grey winds up not just tracing street thugs, but other half-man, half-machine hybrids (or “upgrades” as they call themselves in their own underworld crime scene). This ultimately becomes a kind of product comparison of the various types of cyborg models running around town.
It is in Grey discovering an illegal operation grown out of hacking artificial limbs where the movie’s creativity shines. While it’s in a mostly pedestrian story that the picture is prevented from rising above being a lean, mean diversion. The first act is particularly laborious as the film goes through the tired motion of murdering a wife and watching a man suffer only to get to crawl toward the film’s true start: Stem being inserted into Grey’s head.
Presented as a synthetic id, always egging Grey on to do the wrong thing, it is an interesting glimpse into a future where Lucifer has been digitized and Faustian bargains are the equivalent of iTunes user agreements. A smarter movie would fully unpack what it would be like for a human to live with a second consciousness in his head, especially if it had no conscience unto itself. It also would take the time to delve into the dichotomy of man and machine beyond surface level details that make no sense—like Grey being a good ol’ boy who lives in a house that is completely windowless and lit up by LCD screens.
There is a laziness to the film that doesn’t quite let it become the sleazy sci-fi cult classic it obviously yearns to ascend to. The narrative is muddled, and the performances are scattershot, with Gillberston’s evil tech billionaire being too arch for even late night sketch comedy.
Even so, the film has a wry playfulness in its final acts, and a good ear for sensationalist dialogue. In one noteworthy scene, Grey even lets his body stay paralyzed as it is tortured by goons who are themselves spilling their guts, he then tells Stem to “take the wheel.” Whenever Stem does, that kind of morbid mischief is a joy. Just don’t expect Stem to stick in your head nearly so well as he does for Grey.