Take some “RoboCop,” fold in “John Wick,” add a bit of HAL from “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 tech has become a horror nightmare.
Writer/director Leigh Whannell, half of the team behind the torture porn classic “Saw,” branches into techno-futuristic comic-action-horror with this brutally deft project.
Our hero, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), is your average analog grease monkey, listening to soul music and tinkering with his muscle cars while his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), focuses on her tech company. Driving home from dropping off a vintage car to tech prodigy Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), Grey and Asha are held up and left for dead by a crew of uncommonly weaponized bandits. Grey survives, a quadriplegic, but Asha does not.
Eron makes Grey an offer he can’t refuse. With a team of private doctors, Eron implants a tiny, roachlike widget, STEM, into Grey’s spine. It forms a link between Grey’s brain and his malfunctioning body, allowing him to walk. It also, as Grey discovers, can talk. STEM becomes his partner in crime-solving and his physical strength as they go after Asha’s killers.
What makes “Upgrade” work is the tangible realities it plays on. Alexa, Siri and their counterparts can be helpful, but how much presence should they have in our lives? And what if they turn on us?
Marshall-Green’s physical performance is what communicates the relationship between man and machine. 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 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” couldn’t feel more timely. All the gadgets and gear just might strip us of our own autonomy.