It’s hard to say for how much longer the specter of artificial intelligence will remain one of those boogeymen that inspire tales of wonder and fear. We’re nearing the inflection point (if we have not unknowingly crossed it already) where the promise and peril of AI will either manifest itself fully, or will prove to be a useful and powerful thing…just not in the way imagined by those of us who really know nothing about how it works. But until we get to that day when we know for real what we can truly expect from this nearly magical kind of technology, it will continue to produce all kinds of fun stories about a world in which humans will seek to shed their meat for machinery, and any self-respecting AI will seek to trade batteries for bodies. That intersection of desires is where we come across a dark, nasty, gory and hugely entertaining science fiction thriller that has enough B-movie in it to engage in visceral mayhem, but enough Isaac Asimov in it to use all that carnage to ask a few unsettling questions along the way. That movie? Upgrade.
The story takes place in the near future, in a world of ever-present but low-level automation and the whispered promises of cybernetic augmentation. It’s a world where a low-tech gearhead like Grey Trace can make his living fixing up old muscle cars for those rich enough to live a life without microprocessors. But when Grey and his girlfriend Asha are gunned down in a senseless mugging, everything goes wrong. Asha is dead and Grey—left paralyzed from the neck down—is in suicidal despair over it. One of his clients, a billionaire tech innovator named Elon, promises Grey an off-the-books opportunity to field-test an experimental technology that will let Grey walk again. It’s called STEM, and Grey soon learns that it is really a bio-interfacing AI that can bypass the damage in Grey’s nervous system. But it can also talk to him and augment his body to superhuman levels. Before long, Grey and STEM embark on a mission of bloody revenge on the thugs who shot him and Asha. But as the floors slicken with blood, Grey learns that having a supertech AI riding shotgun in your body isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when it demands that you let it do the driving.
Upgrade is, at its heart, a cheap revenge exploitation flick wrapped up in a scrappy science fiction “what if” story that comes together in a combination that is as unlikely as it is entertaining. For a story about high technology, it manages to do so without rubbing our faces in it, ever mindful that just because the world of tomorrow has AIs and cyborgs in it doesn’t it won’t also have grimy alleyways filled with murderous scumbags.
This is one of the first truly successful cyberpunk films that trades equally on the dreamlike promise of tomorrow’s tech and a modern cynicism over what people are likely to do with it. It’s the kind of movie you wish there were many more of, knowing that such a thing will hopefully never come to pass. Cyberpunk isn’t a mission statement, it’s a cautionary tale. And the more of these stories we see that work, the closer we are to passing the point of no return they’re trying to warn us about. That’s something worth remembering the next time we see an augmented fella doing network on bad guys with fiber optics for nerve endings.
What makes this movie work so well is the way it infuses its grim violence and body horror with dark humor. Trace is so amused by the craziness happening to his body that he scarcely has time to stop and think about what is happening to him. And when he does, STEM is there to give him answers to questions he’s not even sure he’s asking. Grey’s tech doesn’t work 100% the way it’s supposed to. The bad guys aren’t 100% who he thinks they are. His own near-murder didn’t go down 100% like he thought it did. It’s a scenario where the closer Grey gets to his objective, the further away it seems. The real tension starts coming in when we get the sense that we’re a step or two ahead of Grey himself, knowing better than he does that something terrible is just around the corner. We may not know what it is, but we can sensing its nearness. Being oblivious in a world that has no interest if you live or die is a very stressful to witness if you’re not the one whistling in the dark.
There are plenty of standout scenes in this movie, especially once Grey starts letting STEM do the driving and his body transforms into a superhuman melee machine. The fight scenes are shot so well and with such innovative techniques—largely to convey both the havoc underway as well as to express the disorientation Grey himself feels as he watches his body do things he never could—that you almost forget how simple this movie really is. There is some FX, sure, but for the most part, this is a movie told by traditional filmcraft, especially: excellent staging, camera work and editing. Funny how a story about high technology is told using such decidedly lower-tech methods. But perhaps that’s the point. For when we get to the end of Upgrade, and experience its real moment of truth, new are treated to a plot point of such multi-layered inversions, and so many expectations horrifically turned back on themselves, that maybe enjoying a great tale simply told is the moral. After all, the problem with seeking technology that allows us to transcend human limits is that we might actually succeed. Only then will we learn what the real price of our ambitions are. And by then, it’ll be too late.