“Upgrade” is a mixed bag full of borrowed materials, and I sort of like that. While clearly reminiscent of “Death Wish” (1974) and other similar revenge thriller films, the movie is a pulpy science fiction decorated with familiar but amusing genre elements, and I appreciate how it has a little fun with its preposterous SF premise as occasionally jolting us with a number of violent but morbidly entertaining action scenes.
Its story is set in a near-future world which has advanced a lot with the considerable development in computer technology. While many other people have enjoyed the benefits from this technological advancement, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) has stuck to a more analogue lifestyle, and that aspect of his is quite apparent as we watch him diligently refurbishing a classic sports car for his latest client in his old-fashioned garage. As your average independent guy, he does not want to depend too much on technology, and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) understands his preference without much complaint although her daily life and work rely a lot on technology in contrast.
Not long after Asha comes back from her workplace, Grey drives that classic sports car to his latest client’s residence located in some remote place, and she goes along with him as he needs to be driven back to home by her self-driving vehicle. Once she arrives at the destination along with him, Asha is excited to see that his latest client is none other than Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), a rich and successful computer technology wiz who eagerly shows them his latest invention. He recently developed an artificial intelligence chip called ‘STEM’, and he tells Grey and Asha a bit about how it can support human nervous system once it is installed inside human body.
After that interesting time with Keen, Grey and Asha go back to their home by her car, but her self-driving car happens to drive into his old crime-ridden neighborhood due to some malfunction, and then it eventually crashes into some spot in this dangerous neighborhood. Shortly after this accident, they are attacked by a quartet of goons, and Grey is forced to watch his wife getting killed by these goons while also becoming quadriplegic due a severe injury he sustains during that horrible moment.
While Grey becomes angry and morose as there is not much progress in the police investigation of the incident, Keen approaches to him on one day, and he makes an offer Grey cannot easily refuse. He wants Grey to participate in a clandestine test for STEM, and Grey eventually agrees to be the human subject of that test although he is understandably reluctant at first. Once STEM is put into his body via a special surgery, Grey is surprised to see that he regains the control of his limbs a lot faster than expected, but, of course, there is a catch. He must hide this remarkable physical improvement of his from others, and Keen even has him sign a non-disclosure agreement.
As enjoying his new freedom in private, Grey becomes more aware of the presence of STEM, who begins to talk to him on one day. While surely shocked and baffled by this sudden happening, Grey comes to accept STEM, and STEM turns out to be quite helpful when Grey looks into a bunch of investigation data which are sent by Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel), a cop who has been investigating Grey and Asha’s incident. Thanks to STEM, Grey can find the identity of one of four suspects spotted by a drone at that time and then promptly goes to where that suspect resides, but this only results in a violent clash between him and that guy, and he is surprised again when he lets STEM take the total control of his body, which is instantly turned into a killing machine and then swiftly takes care of his imminent trouble.
As Grey tracks down other suspects while assisted by STEM, director/write Leigh Whannell, who has been mainly known for his contribution to “Saw” (2004) and “Insidious” (2011) and their respective following sequels, provides several tense, brutal moments peppered with a wry sense of humor. As cinematographer Stefan Duscio’s camera smoothly captures Grey’s every body movement, the movie generates some dark laughs from Grey’s visible awkwardness with his improved physical state, and I like how deftly it balances itself well between humor and suspense when Grey must handle his body for himself under a very urgent circumstance at one point.
Whannell draws effective performances from his main cast members. While Logan Marshall-Green holds the center well with his earnest acting, Betty Gabriel, who was memorable as one of creepy supporting characters in “Get Out” (2017), and Melanie Vallejo leave some impression despite their thankless roles, and Harrison Gilbertson and Benedict Hardie are suitably insidious in their mannered performance. As the voice of STEM, Simon Maiden is as calm and detached as Douglas Rain in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), and you will probably sense something fishy whenever STEM speaks to Grey.
“Upgrade” is essentially a remorseless genre exercise without much human dimension, and I observed its story and characters from the distance, but Whannell did a fairly good job of bringing enough fun and style to his movie. This is certainly a quintessential case of guilty pleasure, and I will not deny that I was entertained during my viewing.