Grey Trace is a simple mechanic in a technologically advanced world. He asks his wife, Asha, who is an employee for a tech company, to help him return a refurbished car to his client, Eron Keen. Eron is a renowned tech innovator, and when the two of them visit him, he unveils his latest creation: STEM – a multipurpose chip with nearly unlimited potential. On the way home, Grey and Asha’s self-driving car malfunctions and crashes. Four men accost the couple, killing Asha and shooting Grey through the neck, severing his spinal cord. Left quadriplegic and in the care of his mother, Pamela, Grey sinks into a depression. Aron visits Grey shortly thereafter, promising that STEM may allow him to walk again.
Upon its release in 2018, Upgrade was read as a combination of The Six Million Dollar Man and Death Wish. The former’s influence on this film is obvious just when parsing its premise. The basic idea is that Grey Trace, like Steve Austin before him, had suffered a debilitating injury and is subsequently rebuilt better, stronger, and faster than he was before. The only initial catch to this proposition is that Grey has to pretend to be paralyzed as per a non-disclosure agreement.
The “Death Wish” half of the comparison becomes relevant once the plot begins in earnest. Shortly after the chip is implanted into his spine, Grey hears a mysterious voice. It is not a hallucination; the voice belongs to STEM itself. The chip has an artificial intelligence who offers an interesting proposal to Grey: it can bring the murderers to justice. To help him, STEM quickly identifies one of the assailants: one Serk Brantner.
What follows could only be described as Death Wish if the protagonist somehow managed to be every bit as along for the ride as the audience. It is a relatively common action-film trope for an unassuming protagonist thrust into a perilous situation suddenly proving themselves a proficient fighter. It doesn’t matter if their typical profession wouldn’t necessitate one to hone one’s boxing or martial arts skills; even a desk clerk can turn into Bruce Lee if the plot demands it be so. Even if it doesn’t make sense at all, audiences generally accept this as an acceptable deviation from realty for the sake of drama and tension.
With Upgrade, writer-director Leigh Whannell resolves this disconnect in a rather imaginative way. Grey breaks into Serk’s home in his attempts to find incriminating evidence. However, Serk catches Grey in the act. At that moment, STEM asks for permission to take over Grey’s body. When he does so, the AI proceeds to brutally kill Serk with Grey’s hands. The reason it works is because the AI manages to calculate the precise movements required to overpower the criminal effortlessly.
So, while this film was frequently compared to The Six Million Dollar Man and Death Wish, I found it brought to mind the classic 2000 cyberpunk video game Deus Ex as well. Body modifications are a reoccurring subject in cyberpunk features, but those that feature in Upgrade bring to mind Deus Ex due to their comparative simplicity. Much like how JC Denton’s outward appearance lacked the extensive mechanization of his predecessors, it can take the viewer a few seconds to realize the extent of the characters’ augmentations. One of the criminals can fire shotgun blasts from his palm whereas Grey himself has but a single chip that nonetheless allows him to be an effective fighter thanks to its AI.
Upgrade was also praised for its dark sense of humor. That is definitely one of the stronger aspects of the film. The initial dynamic between Grey and STEM leads to many humorous moments – particularly when the latter kills Serk. Being a civilian with no combat experience, Grey naturally vomits when STEM uses his own body to kill the criminal. STEM then helpfully detects said vomit so Grey can clean it up and avoid implicating himself. It’s also amusing when, during his second major fight, Grey refers to STEM as a ninja to the latter’s indignation.
More than anything, what I enjoyed about Upgrade was the intrigue and how careful Grey needed to be in order for him to get his revenge. For a film only one-hundred minutes in length, it has a surprisingly high number of moving parts. Detective Cortez, the one assigned to Asha’s murder case, is keeping a close eye on Grey’s activities. She is unaware of STEM, meaning Grey must act paralyzed when in sight of her or one of her many drone cameras. On top of that, Eron, tracking STEM’s movements, forces Grey to stop his investigation. Grey ignores the demand and is eventually forced to race against the clock as Eron attempts to shut down STEM remotely, losing more and more motion as time goes on. It’s easily one of the tensest scenes in the film knowing that Grey will be completely helpless if he doesn’t make it in time.
With a creative premise, a hefty amount of black comedy, and a surprising amount of thought put into the world building, Upgrade successfully provides the complete package for the first two acts. And then, in one of the most surreal turn of events to ever occur in any of my theatergoing experiences, I watched all of that goodwill quickly evaporate in the third act as though it never was. In fact, I speak no hyperbole when I say Upgrade has one of the worst, most misbegotten final acts of any competently made film in the entire history of cinema.
Things begin to take a turn for the worse after the hacker prevents Eron from shutting down STEM. After Grey is forced to reveal STEM’s existence to Pamela, he decides to abandon his journey for revenge. STEM explains to Grey that Fisk, the criminal responsible for paralyzing him, will hunt down and kill them. STEM then takes the choice out of Grey’s hands when it reveals the hack wound up giving it the ability to assume control without his express permission.
To make matters worse, when the two of them hunt down Fisk, he reveals he was hired to paralyze Grey. Further evidence in Fisk’s phone suggests Eron orchestrated the events of this film. However, when Grey confronts Eron it turns out that he too had been manipulated. The true mastermind is none other than STEM itself. STEM had dominated all aspects of Eron’s life – including his company’s business plan. The AI is obsessed with becoming human, and needed a helpless body to take over in order to realize its goal. It then kills Eron, for he is the only one capable of creating another STEM to oppose it.
Cortez arrives on the scene shortly thereafter. Grey tries to fight for control over his body, attempting to kill himself in order to save Cortez. For a moment, it seems as though he succeeded. Unfortunately, this is a fake-out. Grey’s mind has been completely broken by STEM, and he is now in a perpetual dreamlike state where he can be with his deceased wife. In the real world, STEM is permanently in control of Grey’s body, allowing it to kill Cortez and bask in its victory.
The extent to which the final act of this film fails is so profound, it’s difficult to know where to begin. The most immediate problem with the ending itself is just how obnoxious it manages to be. It’s clear that Mr. Whannell wanted to pull the rug out from under his audience for the sake of cheaply blindsiding them. What is particularly ironic about all of this is that it would have been less predictable, given the trends at the time, if it turned out STEM was entirely on the level. From there, the two could’ve learned from each other, causing STEM to become more human while Grey learned to let go of his aversion to technology. Instead, things are taken to the dumbest conclusion possible, making STEM come across as a villainous Mary Sue whose plans work perfectly despite the litany of things that could’ve gone wrong with them.
Not coincidentally, 2018 was right around when certain moviegoers were becoming weary of directors attempting to subvert expectations. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with being subversive in of itself. The problem with filmmakers’ subversive tendencies in the 2010s is that they tended to rely on them as a crutch. Subversions typically work the best when they’re used as a means to an end rather than the end itself. After all, if you run down a list of clichés and reverse all of them, you’re still, in a roundabout way, conforming to a style guide.
Fewer films provide a perfect example of what, exactly, I mean than Upgrade. By 2018, a very disturbing trend of anti-intellectualism had permeated Western science fiction. Whereas science-fiction writers in the 1980s often looked to science as a frontier yet to be explored, their 2010s counterparts treated it with the same kind of fear of the unknown one would expect from an unapologetic xenophobe. The exact reasoning behind these tenancies is somewhat difficult to pin down, but a common goal with science-fiction writers at the time was to weave cautionary tales about humankind’s dependance on technology. While these sentiments were well-intentioned, the writers themselves generally didn’t have the nuance or, in extreme cases, desire, to pull it off without being exceedingly heavy-handed. As such, in a typical acclaimed 2010s science-fiction piece, you could count on ambitious, intelligent characters to be secretly – or not-so-secretly – evil. If a Luddite showed up, there was a one-to-one chance they would be the single most moral person in the narrative. It got to the point where even works outside of science fiction tended to make the smartest character in the narrative the most immoral.
The reason this bears mentioning is because these are all things of which Upgrade itself is extremely guilty. Grey is a certifiable technophobe, yet the setting’s advanced technology is eventually forced upon him. The more he uses this technology, the less human he becomes thanks to STEM’s interference. In the end, humankind is wrong for turning to technology to improve themselves, which is why Eron, for all intents and purposes, is divinely punished for breaking the taboo against creating life when STEM turns against him. Then, of course, there’s STEM itself. After all, this heavily romanticized take on science-fiction would not be complete without an AI who is practically Satan himself. Therefore, STEM is exactly that.
While the final act of Upgrade causes the film to fail on a philosophical level, by not providing a satisfying payoff, it makes what would have been minor flaws far more noticeable. In particular, the film is shockingly behind the times in how it treats Asha’s character. The 2010s saw a new wave of feminism objecting to the depiction of women in fiction. Filmmakers, despite their romantic tendencies, fancied themselves an enlightened group. It was therefore jarring to see Asha killed off as soon as possible for the sake of giving Grey a motivation to get involved in the plot. It wasn’t a trope that had completely died off by 2018, but the film also features a tertiary character who is a hacker with a non-binary gender identity. It is therefore strange how the film manages to be progressive in some respects, and horribly regressive in others.
I also have to say that while critics praised the humor, it ultimately clashed horribly with how the film ends. There is something to be said for having a consistent tone, and it is incredibly self-defeating for characters to crack jokes throughout the second act only for the film to end in on such a dour note. Obviously, it’s not impossible to pull off a mixture of comedy and tragedy; Terry Gilliam made it work in one of his most famous films. However, the key difference is that the comedy and tragedy were in sync with each other. Upgrade doesn’t do this – the jokes are on par with what you would find in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, yet its ending is something out of a Franz Kafka story. These are two styles that simply do not mix.
It’s also worth noting that Mr. Gilliam’s film did have a fake-out similar to that of Upgrade, but it was far more effective because it presented its audience with a scenario too good to be true. Had the audience been blindsided under those circumstances, it was their fault for not paying close enough attention. There’s nothing particularly skillful about getting your audience to go along with a plausible premise only for you laugh in their face for being gullible enough to believe it. Then again, there’s also nothing particularly skillful about blindly going along with the anti-intellectual, overly romanticized trends in science-fiction either, so perhaps this project really was doomed from the word go.
Upgrade is, in the absolute worst sense, a product of its time. Like many acclaimed works of science-fiction in the 2010s, it was far more interested in warning its audience of the dangers of technology than telling an actual story. Things are the way they are for the sake of getting the message across – diegesis be damned. While these pieces were arguably noble in their intent, they came at the expense of perpetuating an extremely persistent trend of anti-intellectualism that was nigh-inescapable in science fiction at the time. The film may have been lauded in 2018, but I will never see it as anything other than further proof as to just how much the genre had devolved since its cinematic golden age.
One may think, being a cautionary tale, Upgrade at least has value as a parable akin to what one would find in an episode of The Twilight Zone. The key is that while the writers of The Twilight Zone and similar works did spin cautionary tales, they still approached science with legitimate fascination. The reason this isn’t observable in the 2010s is because science-fiction writers from that time had clearly thrown in the towel. They weren’t terribly interested in improving the status quo; they were simply angry and wanted everyone to know it. Just like its contemporaries, Upgrade takes what could’ve been an interesting analysis of the impact technology has on humankind and reduces it to an insipid strawman argument.
While I do commend Mr. Whannell for making a visually impressive film on such a small budget of three-million dollars, I still find that, in spite of its legitimately great ideas and attempts at humor, I can’t recommend it in any capacity. It is, at the end of the day, a deeply anti-intellectual film enabled by a complacent creative circle heavily favoring romanticism over enlightenment – a bad combination if there ever was one. The film may have been named Upgrade, but, just like its contemporaries, it was, in reality, a downgrade for science fiction as a whole.
Adjusted Score: 3/10