Grey and Asha Trace are a young, married couple, so far without children, who live in an unnamed American city in the very near future. This future is fully interconnected and digital. People travel in driverless cars and everything has a computer chip in it. Asha (Melanie Vallejo) is part of this world because she works for a tech company. Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) wants as little to do with this modern, computerised existence as possible. He makes his money as a high-end, specialist car mechanic who maintains vintage automobiles for wealthy clients. The machinery of the old world is something he understands and can tinker with, he views the technology of his present as something unwanted and out of his control.
Grey and Asha have a terrible accident in a driverless vehicle and this changes everything irrevocably. The injuries paralyse Grey’s body, making him a quadriplegic. He struggles with the aftermath of the catastrophic event and isn’t coping well, when an extraordinary offer comes to him from one of his billionaire clients. He is given the opportunity to receive a “cure” for his condition; an experimental, neural implant system known as STEM. He reluctantly accepts. Now everything really does have a computer chip in it. Grey’s new STEM-driven body fundamentally alters his life.
UPGRADE treats us to a dark vision of a potential future where corporations control governments and technology is taking over humanity. What it means to be human is evolving rapidly, faster than our ability to make balanced decisions about fetishised bodies meshed with artificial intelligence. The film serves up scenes where the tech is all-pervasive and helps corporations and the state to dominate the citizens. Grey tried to live free from this kind of control and now he is deeply enmeshed in a new version of the system. Worse still, there are parts of STEM that are totally untested and this makes Grey the target of unknown forces who want the cutting-edge tech in his spine. And that’s when things get violent.
Director Leigh Whannel, famous as the co-creator of the SAW and INSIDIOUS franchises, has crafted a film which expertly mixes action, sci-fi and body-horror with humour and gory kill-scenes. Whannel knows pop culture and cinema history. His movie has echoes of ROBOCOP, BLADE RUNNER, VIDEODROME and JOHNNY MNEMONIC to name but a few of his ’80s-inflected influences. Back in the day, these sorts of films would shock and excite with their over-the-top stories and action-packed scenes, and these would often disguise challenging concepts; under the sound and fury of fist-fights, lasers and pyrotechnics, were hidden bigger ideas.UPGRADE is a welcome modernisation of this formula.
Whannel has taken an interesting career step with UPGRADE. He’s a successful filmmaker responsible for two lucrative horror franchises. Instead of going for an even larger movie in Hollywood studio world, he has decided to make a low-budget flick back in his hometown. He lives in Los Angeles, but shot his movie in Melbourne. He has stated in interview that he wanted to make something that he maintained greater control over. The result is impressive. UPGRADE is a well-paced, thrilling, funny, bloody film that slowly reveals itself as cleverer than you think it’s going to be. Among the questions it asks, “Are we smart enough for artificial intelligence?” 95 minutes. (9/10)
Listen to our AccessReel interview with director Leigh whannel here.