On Upgrade, vengeance, fascism, and sentient A.I. across the generations
Upgrade BH Tilt
Director: Leigh Whannell
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Benedict Hardie, Harrison Gilbertson, Melanie Vallejo, Richard Cawthorne and Simon Maiden
Rated R / 1 hour, 40 minutes / 2.35:1
June 1, 2018
(out of four)
At the right theatre, on the right week, in the summer of 2018, you can catch an accidental pair of companion pieces, one a direct but distant precursor to the next. The release of Leigh Whannell's Upgrade roughly coincides with the 50th anniversary 70mm re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has been slipping into theatres across the globe since screening at Cannes in May. HAL, meet STEM. STEM, this is HAL.
To see the two films back to back is to see a nifty evolution of the all-powerful sentient computer, from cinema's most iconic example to its newest incarnation. It's like listening to old family photographs - you can hear the resemblance right away. That calm, dispassionate voice, alternately soothing or off-putting, reassuring or malevolent. While once the computer was deployed in service of grand human endeavor, now, in Upgrade, the endeavor is the human body itself.
From creating A.I. to fearing A.I. to aspiring to become A.I. It's the path that led us here - it's just one Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) never would have chosen. And certainly wouldn't have volunteered himself as guinea pig. He's analog as a matter of principle. Likes to work with his hands; spends his time rebuilding classic American muscle cars for private buyers - fetishized collectors' objects to them, probably, but to him the relics of a more authentic way of life. He reluctantly tolerates the luxuries of his modern smarthome only because his wife insists on them and - like presumably everyone else in this near-future - has become dependent on them. More than that, it's her line of work; the company she works for, Cobolt, specializes not just in smart technology for homes and vehicles, but augmentations for human beings themselves. Grey's body language even being around said technology could charitably be described as hostile.
As irony would have it, Grey eventually becomes not just augmented but technologically reborn. And all it takes is the death of his wife to nudge him in the right direction. Her self-driving car goes on the fritz, it careens off the road and violently ejects both Grey and Asha (Melanie Vallejo), and a group of assailants with weaponized implants take care of the rest. She's dead, he's paralyzed from the neck down. Until the strange, reclusive tech genius Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson, in a performance that screams "Dane DeHaan wasn't available") offers Grey the opportunity he would have steadfastly resisted in any and all other circumstances: If you can't beat the machines, join the machines.
The latest innovation by Keen (who runs a company called Vessel) is a tiny A.I. chip that can be attached unobtrusively to the spinal column and serve as a new, high-powered central nervous system. It's not federally approved, it's not market-ready, and trying to get to that point is the exact kind of red tape Keen doesn't have the patience for. He wants to get it into a body now - and in Grey has just the body to do it.
On paper, it seems like exactly the right kind of mutually beneficial arrangement. You scratch my back by beta-testing the most important piece of manmade human evolution in history, I scratch yours by giving you the opportunity to track down the monsters who killed your wife. I mean, just wait until you see what this thing can do in a fight.
Except, Keen doesn't actually want Grey going rogue. For that matter, he doesn't want him doing much at all. The implant, STEM, restores and actually improves all of his motor functions, but Grey is required to sign a contract prohibiting him from making his restoration public. Which basically means, he can walk around without the wheelchair in his own apartment (when and only when he has no company*) ... and that's basically it. But of course the grieving husband is going to embrace the opportunity to take matters into his own hands - specifically because the investigation into his wife's murder has been a complete non-starter, despite the best efforts of the sharp, well-meaning Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel).
* Which, presumably, would be rarely, considering the rest of his circle know him as a quadriplegic and thus need to be around semi-regularly to help him with daily tasks.
And this is where, for Grey, the very unexpected fun begins. STEM can talk, you see. And access an endless database of information and surveillance footage. And it - he? - can find people, too. The right people. Grey was reluctant about all this, but turns out having a HAL-like supercomputer installed in your body is a pretty addictive tonic. Especially when it can take full control (whenever Grey gives it permission to do so) and instantly become the world's most efficient fighting machine. In moments like these, there's an amusingly pronounced disconnect between Grey's physical actions and his conscious mind - like an in-body, out-of-body experience.
Marshall-Green's reaction to his body's sudden capacity for clinical, savage violence is one of amazed revulsion, adding a nice comic dimension to the brutality. For STEM, it's a cage fight; no rules, last man standing. For Grey, it's practically slapstick. The camera's participation deftly splits the difference, playfully evoking the sudden transformation from human to machine and nimbly responding to each violent movement - each swing, each fall, each collision. Director Leigh Whannell allows the choreography of each action scene to guide him, creating a rhythmic, intuitive form of violence that viscerally conveys the adrenaline of Grey's observer-like ceding of physical control.
While the man-into-machine premise of Upgrade places it vaguely in the company of RoboCop or Ghost in the Shell, functionally Grey's experience plays like a cross between Jason Bourne and Iron Man. Or, in the way Grey keeps trying to instruct STEM on his moral code, it's kinda like Terminator 2 if John Connor and the T-800 were sharing the same body. In execution this is basically the movie that all those awful technophobic thrillers from the '90s thought they were - with their high-pitched but shallow paranoia about the dastardly possibilities of new technologies. In using the possibilities of 2018 tech as a jumping-off point to a discernible near-future in which computerized implants are the norm and A.I. is a ubiquitous social reality (while, in the back of our minds, an existential concern), Upgrade keeps the rest of the details spare and just lets that battle for coexistence within Grey's body play out in all its grubby, bone-crunching glory.
Tellingly, the film is not unaware of the ideological legacy of attempts at biological, genetic, or in this case biogenetic superiority. The villain (played by Benedict Hardie) is indication enough - fashy haircut; skinny, high-waisted pants; combat boots; wisp of a fair-haired mustache. Upgrade may not have ambitions of social caution or deep commentary, but it's no dummy. And since its premise is analogous to a superhero origin story, it's worth noting that it's a lot smarter about the inherently authoritarian nature of superpowered beings than superhero movies themselves.