Finally, a movie that dares to ask the question "What if Siri was evil?". Leigh Whannell, noted alum of the "Saw" and "Insidious" franchises, takes this question seriously, skewering humanity's increasing reliance on artificial intelligence with the new sci-fi thriller "Upgrade". The film struggles with its cumbersome revenge plot, but there are plenty of interesting questions raised along the way. You may even think twice about talking to your Alexa after this.
The film takes place in the not-too-distant future, where our society has become increasingly mechanized and automated. Self-driving cars fill the highways, tabletops have touchscreen capabilities, and houses operate with AI systems. Even the Hollywood gold standard for impractical but flashy futuristic technology, the holographic computer display, makes an appearance. Humble mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, looking distractingly like a knockoff Tom Hardy) rejects the aid of computers. He is a man who works with his hands, repairing and restoring old cars (while listening to vinyl records, naturally) for rich clients. Grey and his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), deliver a refurbished muscle car to the subterranean home of the billionaire tech genius, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson). The creepy Elon Musk wannabe shows the couple his latest invention, a miraculous piece of nanotechnology known as "Stem", which can supposedly control and connect to any electronic device.
On their way home, the couple's self-driving car makes an unexpected detour into a seedy area of town. The car promptly crashes, leaving Grey and his wife at the mercy of a gang of villains. The criminals shoot Asha and Grey, leaving her dead and our protagonist quadriplegic. Enter Eron, who offers Trace a chance to walk again with the aid of Stem. One nondisclosure agreement and a top-secret surgery later, and not-Tom-Hardy is up and mobile once again. Stem is implanted into Grey's spinal cord, connecting into his nervous system and communicating with him through his eardrums. The two maintain a tenuous rapport, with Trace wary of his new A.I. companion (and as if the Tom Hardy resemblance wasn't enough, the Stem/Trace banter bears a strange resemblance to Hardy's interactions with his alien symbiote in the "Venom" trailer). Trace, now armed with the power of technology, decides to track down his attackers. The police officers of the future are not much help, even with their dystopian fleet of patrol drones monitoring, so vigilante justice is the only logical route for Grey and his microchip pal.
Trace proceeds to track down and, much to his chagrin, kill the people responsible for his wife's death. You see, Stem has the ability to override Grey's motor functions if granted permission. Our protagonist is better at fixing cars than fighting cyborg military veterans, so he must give himself over to the A.I.'s control in order to survive. These fight scenes are some of the stronger points of the movie, with the camera following Grey around with mechanical motion-controlled precision as Stem pilots his body. His unwillingness to engage in the violence that his body commits on autopilot is perversely funny, like some weird offspring of "John Wick" and "Idle Hands". Both the police and Eron catch on to Trace's revenge scheme, with the police wanting to apprehend the supposedly quadriplegic killer, and Eron wanting to prevent his experimental technology from being linked to murders. The race is on as Grey must outwit his pursuers and keep Stem from overstepping its control of his body.
There are some truly interesting, if not unsubtle, themes at play in "Upgrade". As technology continues its endless march of progress, it is important to consider how much control we give computer systems over our lives. Everything in this movie's vision of the future is automated or computerized in some way. Not even analog technology can save the day. In the same year that we get the mostly pro-VR "Ready Player One", "Upgrade" gives us imagery of VR addicts in a derelict building reminiscent of an opium den. It may be lunkheaded, but the messages are sufficiently alarming.
The major flaw with "Upgrade", coincidentally is with its universe. The story Leigh Whannell decides to tell is just not as interesting as the various things hinted at in this sci-fi setting. Grey's revenge plot gets repetitive around the time he offs the second bad guy and decreases in excitement as it becomes increasingly obvious the movie is headed for a dumb villain reveal (which, alas, it is). I was much more interested in the strange cyberpunk underworld that exists just below the cold, sleek surface of the movie's futuristic technology. Whannell is more concerned with cheap thrills, and that is totally fine. I just wish the movie had focused more on the stuff in the periphery.
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