This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Leigh Whannell
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been experiencing franchise fatigue for quite some time now—long before Disney managed to wring out two Marvel AND two Star Wars movies within six months or the Merc with a Mouth finagled his way into the hallowed aisles of 7-Eleven. To that, UPGRADE is, well, an upgrade on the summer flick: a compact, surprisingly well-executed gut punch that doesn’t star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s, in a word, refreshing.
Grey Trace (a great Logan Marshall-Green—more than just a Tom Hardy look-alike) is an old school man living in a new school world; one who likes getting his hands dirty, restoring muscle cars, and listening to vinyl while having a beer in the garage. He isn’t so atavistic, though, as to not be comfortable with his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), a higher-up at an advanced tech company, wearing the pants around the house. However, in short order, the happy couple is mugged, leaving Asha dead and Grey paralyzed from the neck down. Later, Grey is visited by a man who tells him that he can help him find the men responsible . . . by implanting an advanced AI chip called STEM in his body. Soon enough, Grey discovers that STEM has not only restored his bodily function, but it speaks (in a voice that sounds an awful lot like HAL 9000, which ought to be a clue that not all is as it seems), as well, helping him in his quest.
Instagram filters and autonomous vehicles
UPGRADE is, without question, indebted to many movies that came before it, but don’t use that as an excuse to write it off. The obvious comparisons to be made are, of course, ROBOCOP and DEATH WISH, with fight scenes reminiscent of the visceral, hyperkinetic balletics of more recent films like JOHN WICK and THE RAID: REDEMPTION. It also calls to mind the little known UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, which is, for my money, the most slept-on action film of the last decade. But, while there may not be a whole lot in UPGRADE that is new, a lot of what is used is creatively repurposed. Moving past the plot of ROBOCOP, the glib gallows humor of Verhoeven is put to good use when Grey is made bystander to his own body as STEM dispatches enemies with horrifying efficiency. Adding to that, the imaginative gore you’d expect from the writer of the first few Saw films is in full effect here, as is the general body horror insanity of Cronenberg (not to mention a new take on the literal hand-guns of VIDEODROME).
However, UPGRADE is more than just a pastiche, and it is remarkable how well director Leigh Whannell was able to pull all of these genre elements together. He paints a convincing and, more importantly, lived-in portrait of the near-future—a gleaming marvel of human ingenuity on the cusp of becoming a full-blown William Gibson/Philip K. Dick techno-hellhole, where cybernetically-enhanced outlaws are only slightly less common than smart homes, driverless cars, and surveillance drones. There is a real feel for the ubiquity of technology in his world (and, by extension, ours), and the many implications, both good and bad, of AI, human-machine interfacing, hacking, surveillance, and nanotechnology are given careful consideration. On the other side of the coin, Whannell was also clever enough to leave the vestiges of the old world (Grey included) very much in plain sight. We see the dirt, we see the grime, we get up close and personal with the desperation of the 99% left on the ground floor of the singularity, and it works.
Me, hearing about HOBBS AND SHAW
Where many sci-fi films bog themselves down explaining the mechanics of their worlds, UPGRADE does a pretty good job of committing to the “show, don’t tell” school of thought. Sure, there is a bit of heavy-handed dialogue, but the film doesn’t quite beat viewers over the head with it the way, say, GHOST IN THE SHELL did. Instead, we watch things happen, which opens the door for a lot of really cool and innovative practical effects. For example, we learn that STEM controls Grey’s movement and that it is able to assume full control of his body if granted permission, but there isn’t much wasted breath on how it does it. STEM just activates, manipulating Grey’s body into a hyper-efficient killing machine, and it is a blast to watch. (How these scenes were filmed, ironically, is really cool: the camera was made to lock onto an app running on a phone strapped to Marshall-Green’s chest, tracking his movements exactly.) The most impressive part about all of this, though, is the fact that Whannell was able to do everything on a typical Blumhouse budget of around five million.
But, for how impressed I was by UPGRADE and how much I enjoyed it, there was one thing about it I couldn’t quite shake: the movie kind of illustrates the ultimate revenge/power fantasy. Not only does STEM restore Grey’s body, greatly improve his strength, speed and reflexes, and process information like a supercomputer, but it can also turn off his pain receptors and help him navigate or lie his way out of any compromising situation. It basically makes him damn near invulnerable as long as he isn’t staring down the business end of a gun. Except now imagine that gun in the hand of a person with those abilities (Grey’s enemies in the film are terrifying enough without their guns, hand or otherwise). What I’m getting at is that I’m as wary of AI as the next guy who grew up watching THE TERMINATOR, but the difference now is that I’m less afraid of technology running amok than I am of people using technology to run amok.
FOH with that BUMBLEBEE shit
The folks at Crossfader and I spend a lot of time talking about how superhero movies are, ultimately, irresponsible—not just because they glamorize individuals who cause wide-scale destruction with no real consequences or repercussions, but because of their broad appeal. Superhero movies have truly become the common denominator of film: everyone sees them, whether they like them or not. But the problem is that people, consciously or not, imprint themselves onto these characters, imagining their roles in those larger-than-life, invariably destructive scenarios where the normal rules of everyday life don’t apply. No one (hopefully) entertains any serious thoughts about gaining superpowers from a radioactive spider or a gamma burst, though . . . but the possibility of gaining superhuman powers from an AI interface or a cybernetically-enhanced body isn’t nearly as far-fetched.
What if one could apply cold precision to raw human emotion? What if people could flawlessly execute their most irrational and destructive impulses? Let’s look back at GHOST IN THE SHELL. Ishikawa had a “cyber-mech liver” implanted just so he could drink more. Kuze carried out highly-orchestrated, nearly untraceable terrorist attacks. Now I’m no expert in any kind of advanced scientific field, and what little I do know has at least been partially shaped by decades of technophobic sci-fi, but we are approaching a time in which, at least theoretically, people will be able to do nearly anything they want. If an upgraded individual were to snap—which seems to be the new norm in this country—how much damage could that person do? How would the law handle people blaming their actions on AI malfunctioning or going rogue? Could we even stop them?
What if you could eat unlimited Taco Bell?
Grey’s motivation is, at least initially, a noble goal, I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But, in this pursuit, STEM goes off the rails almost right away, and Grey gets to watch in horror as his own body commits murder. Sure, STEM acts on its own, but he gave it permission. He allowed it. If Grey really wanted to end the violence, he could have told STEM to STFU at any point. But he didn’t. He goes along with it, pushes further. So where is the line between innocent and complacent? At what point does Grey become guilty? These aren’t easy questions. Even the protagonist’s name, Grey, suggests just how morally ambiguous and complex the film’s ideas really are.
Violence, no matter how much modern society is able to dampen it, is a part of human nature. It’s at least part of why movies like UPGRADE and DEATH WISH are a thing. People want a way to exorcise their most destructive, socially unacceptable impulses in a socially acceptable way—one which conveniently does away with tricky feelings of guilt and responsibility (“noble goal,” THE PURGE?). It’s why we keep hearing the whole “good guy with a gun” thing over and over, even though statistically it’s little more than a myth. We contrive justifications (although that seems to be less and less the case) for the violence that exists inside ourselves. I’m not trying to make any claims that filmmakers should be more careful with their ideas or anything like that—I loved UPGRADE, just as I love countless other violent action, horror, and sci-fi films—and I’m not pretending to have any great insight or solutions to the world’s problems, but maybe, in an increasingly complicated, confusing, and dangerous world, we should all just try to be a little more human.