Writer-director Leigh Whannel’s “Upgrade” – now available for streaming – blends sci-fi elements we’ve seen before into a fresh yarn that’s gripping as a thrill ride and a near-future mystery. Most remarkably, it’s also darkly funny, making it one of the hidden gems of the summer movie season.
To open, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), are heading home in their computer-driven car. “The X-Files’ ” most recent season played this for parody as Scully can’t get her automatic car to do what she wants, but it turns grimmer in “Upgrade” when the vehicle crashes. The Traces survive, but are immediately gunned down by bad guys, leaving Grey paralyzed and Asha dead.
“Robocop” is the next riff: The reclusive young genius Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) outfits Grey with a computer chip, called Stem, that relays messages from his brain to his spine, allowing his body to function again. With his restored freedom of movement, Grey wants to take out the people who murdered his wife – and find out why they did it.
Those are just the first couple big SF ideas in “Upgrade,” which is also a nice artistic achievement. Marshall-Green does a nice job of performing scenes when Stem takes control of his body. In fights, Grey simultaneously beats up bad guys with swift, one-step-ahead moves and is horrified by what his body is doing, sometimes not even opening his eyes.
The subtle production design nicely conveys a near future. The cars on the road are mostly recognizable, but there are a few automatic vehicles that don’t have windows, like the wrapped-up Enterprise rental car. Some buildings look futuristic, but there are off-the-grid slums. A bar’s restroom with white floor-to-ceiling tiling calls to mind “Saw,” Whannel’s calling card as a screenwriter.
“Upgrade” is a smart foray into the theory of the singularity. Whereas “The Terminator” is built on the old SF fear that computers will kill humans, most scientists believe humans and computers will gradually morph into single beings, and the prevailing wisdom is that it’s not something to fear. Grey is a step toward that, and indeed, Stem works great. At first.
When Stem takes over, it’s not so great. In fact, the notion of being trapped in your own body soon becomes horrific.
During the genesis of “Star Wars,” George Lucas was interested in the notion of a person becoming less human if they have robotic parts. In an early draft – nicely portrayed in the comic book “The Star Wars” – Kane Starkiller believes he is turning evil because he has a robotic heart. This ties in with some religious beliefs that the soul resides in the body — with the mind being a second, distinct, element of personhood. These views are silly, not to mention insulting to people with prosthetic limbs or pacemakers.
“Upgrade” somewhat follows this train of thought but disembarks at a key junction: It takes the position that the soul resides in the mind, not in the body. This is equally silly from a scientific viewpoint, but more palatable. Grey’s body is an organic machine that the invading mind – Stem – has taken over.
The phrase “losing one’s mind” is thrown around a lot, but Whannel’s movie makes it plausible and scary. On multiple levels.
In a nice twist, it turns out Eron is likewise not in control of himself. In his case, it’s because he’s being manipulated by Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden). Whannel acknowledges the singularity theory, but actually makes it scarier than killer robot armies, suggesting that “keeping your enemies closer” isn’t always wise.
“Upgrade’s” plot has a circular, contained quality even before we know exactly what’s going on. Although it is sometimes “John Wick”-ian in its action, and grimly satisfying when the quadriplegic Grey surprises his enemies with a robust set of fighting skills, “Upgrade” is nearly as tight an idea movie as “Ex Machina.” It’s a focused cautionary tale about the hacking of the most precious computers: our minds.