Set in an undefined near-future city, Upgrade is a low-budget sci-fi action thriller that reminded me of the good old days of the (original) Robocop. Its a reminder that sci-fi films don’t have to be mega-budget/high-concept blockbusters to succeed, and indeed in many ways Upgrade is more successful than Alita, which I happened to have seen not long before.
The film seems to have been spun off the possibilities, for good or ill, of AI (Artificial Intelligence) – there are trashy settlements of disenfranchised and unemployed on the wrong side of the AI divide, while the rich live in high-tech homes that are controlled by AI and who are driven around by AI cars. Inevitably, while it reminded me (through its violence and corporate dystopia) of Robocop, it also reminded me of Black Mirror, in how it spun its story around the technology and how it impacted the characters and world.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an analogue guy in a digital world, is a mechanic who prefers old-fashioned cars that are driven, over high-tech cars that drive people around. His wife, Asha, has no such issues, fully at ease with the AI world that serves her every whim and ensures her a promising career with a tech company. However one night their AI car is hacked and malfunctions whilst driving them home and crashes. Four assailants pull them from the car wreckage in what is apparently a high-tech robbery, but it escalates into something more and Asha is killed, and Grey left crippled by a shot though his spine.
One of Grey’s clients who he rebuilt a car for, approaches Grey in hospital where Grey, mourning his dead wife is also bitterly looking ahead at a life as a quadriplegic. This client, Eron Keen, is the head of a tech company that has a radical (albeit illegal) new tech that involves implanting a revolutionary computer chip named ‘Stem’ into his spine to fix his new disability and offer Grey a normal life again. Grey agrees to the experimental procedure and signs an NDA to ensure the technology remains secret.
The operation is a success, although Grey has to continue to pretend to be paralysed until the procedure can be analysed and proven safe. It also has unexpected benefits- Stem is a self-aware AI that Grey can ‘hear’ in his head and while it ‘fixes’ his disability is also able to take control of Grey’s body giving him super-human reflexes and combat skills, and all sorts of high-tech connections through databases. Stem offers to help Grey investigate the robbery/murder that ripped his world apart and Grey accepts, frustrated by the police inability to solve the crime.
Logan Marshall-Green is pretty damn good as Grey, it’s a tricky role in that he’s often reacting to, and having conversations with, a voice in his head and it’s a pretty physical part as well, with some considerable action scenes and stunts. He manages to elicit some sympathy for his condition and fight for justice and carries the film pretty much by himself.
Naturally there are plenty of twists involved and in the great tradition of both Robocop and Black Mirror nothing in the corporate world is as genuine as it seems and the AI tech has a few issues of its own. The low budget ensures the film has a few limitations but on the whole its very successful, with offerings of body-horror/manipulation that reminded me of Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Ultimately what seems to be a pulpish sci-fi action flick transpires to be a rather cautionary tale and on the whole it’s a great little movie.