As the Internet of Things marches toward automation as the expectation, at what point do machines become the gods that give us life rather than just making life more convenient by stocking up on eggs for us or getting us from Point A to Point B without the burden of driving?
It’s an existential question at the heart of … well, some other movie besides Upgrade, the latest from micro-budget producer impresario Jason Blum and writer-director Leigh Whannell. Here, the men veer away from their usual horror flourishes into hard science-fiction that generates a good amount of grindhouse glee before a disappointingly generic finish.
Often known as Not Tom Hardy, Logan Marshall Green feels more like Not Ashton Kutcher here. He plays Grey Trace, the sort of guy named for what movies like this leave him with … metaphorically speaking. Grey is into Howlin’ Wolf and hot-rod restoration – an analogue acolyte in an automated Arcadia of the future where his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), puts her faith in the promise – and the paycheck – of the Cobolt company’s digital technology.
Grey has just restored a Firebird for Eron Keen, the enigmatic CEO of Cobolt rival Vessel, whom Harrison Gilbertson plays as a sort of civic-theater spin on Niander Wallace from Blade Runner 2049. On the way back from dropping off the car, Grey and Asha are ambushed by a group of thugs — an encounter that leaves Asha dead and Grey a quadriplegic.
Grief-stricken and forced to rely on machines he resents, Grey is more than ready to die … until Keen presents an offer: Become a test subject for Stem, a proprietary piece of leading-edge nanotechnology through which Keen hopes to someday solve all the world’s problems. For now, he’s content to help Grey someday walk again by implanting Stem inside his body.
Within mere hours, Grey is upright, but Stem (given voice by Simon Maiden) is eager to help more. Maybe Stem can access footage the cops can’t to track Asha’s killers. Maybe Stem can lead Grey right to their doorsteps. Maybe Stem can even remotely take over Grey the way IT takes over your computer when email is borked … only to help him irreversibly fuck up thugs.
Green isn’t the most charismatic actor, but he nails the binaries at play in the ghoulish physical comedy when Stem turns Grey into a stone-cold killer. You believe Grey he is simultaneously emboldened and terrified by these new gifts, empowered by the bloodlust but powerless to really control it. The robotic hand-to-hand choreography is hilarious in the first scene but loses its luster when every fight comes to feel like Neo handing the Agents their asses with one hand behind his back. At least Benedict Hardie’s Fisk — a cybernetic cretin resembling a J/V Jackie Earle Haley — gives Grey a run for his money.
Upgrade could also benefit from wittier buddy banter between Stem and Grey, a less easily navigable conspiracy plot and stronger consistency with its own internal logic. Plenty of perfectly enjoyable exploitation entertainment crumbles under the pressure of the briefest thought. The good stuff doesn’t let your mind wander off in that direction. Whannell is often too content to contort Stem’s capabilities in whatever way seems most convenient to the plot at the time, and the question of its burgeoning self-preservation instincts arrive with no philosophical punch at all. Barring that, Upgrade also never gets gonzo in the way of such similar R-rated stories like Lucy or Gamer.
Upgrade seems headed toward the glory days of David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven before settling for intermittently amusing ways to separate heads from bodies. When it comes to separating money from wallets, there has been better, and worse, sci-fi goofiness.