Leigh Whannell, actor, filmmaker and half of the team behind torture porn classic “Saw,” branches into techno-futuristic action horror with the brutally deft “Upgrade,” starring Logan Marshall-Green.
Take some “Robocop,” fold in “John Wick,” sprinkle on a bit of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and season generously with fake blood, a wink and a nudge, and you get “Upgrade,” which imagines a not-so-distant future in which wearable tech has become a body-horror nightmare.
Our hero, Grey, is your average analog grease monkey, listening to soul music and tinkering with his muscle cars, while his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo) prefers the luxuries of sleek self-driving vehicles and smart homes, which give her that much more time to work at her tech company.
One night, driving home from dropping off a vintage car to tech prodigy Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), the technological utopia proves fallible — and fatal. The couple’s self-driving car rams into a homeless encampment and Grey and Asha are held up and left for dead by a crew of uncommonly weaponized bandits. Grey survives, a quadriplegic, while Asha does not.
The mysterious Eron makes Grey an offer he can’t refuse. With a team of private doctors, Eron conducts a secret, unregulated surgery, implanting a tiny, roachlike widget, STEM, into Grey’s spine. STEM becomes the link between Grey’s brain and his malfunctioning body, allowing him to walk.
And STEM, as Grey discovers, can talk. He’s the robotic voice in Grey’s head, the HAL inside of him, controlling his body. STEM becomes his partner in crime-solving, and his physical strength as they go after Asha’s killers, uncovering deeper and deeper conspiracies.
What makes “Upgrade” work is the tangible realities and fears that it plays on — we all wear FitBits — how long until criminals are getting functional guns implanted in their forearms? Alexa, Siri and their counterparts can be helpful, but how much presence should they have in our lives? Personal decisions? What if she turns on us?
Another crucial element is Marshall-Green’s performance. As Grey pre-STEM, he’s brooding and moody, an anti-tech crank. Printing pizzas? He’d rather make them. But desperate, grieving and newly-jazzed up with his powers of STEM, he’s both in awe and bewildered. He begs STEM to show mercy to his victims as he bludgeons them, his hands out of his control, but he also gloats “you didn’t know I was a ninja” to the thugs he corners in scuzzy dive bar bathrooms.
His physical performance is what communicates the relationship between man and machine. He’s awkwardly upright and stiff, he doesn’t move in a way that’s “human,” because what’s moving him isn’t. Whannell plays with film speed and uses incredibly innovative camerawork to underline the unreality of Grey’s artificially enhanced movement.
At times the camera seems rigged to his body, as we lurch along with him, and other times it pulls back to let us take in all of his whirling destruction.
“Upgrade” is a brutish, efficient and well-executed slice of cyber-punk action horror with a silly streak. It tempers the gratuitous and gory violence with a few laughs, drawing us in, then skewering our obsession with technology of the self.
With present-day headlines about out-of-control self-driving cars and smart speakers acting autonomously, “Upgrade” couldn’t feel more timely. All the gadgets and gear just might strip us of our own autonomy.