Leigh Whannell has set his vicious, stylish sci-fi pulp thriller Upgrade in a near future of self-driving cars and fully Alexa-ruled homes, telling a story of revenge and possession while wittily targeting contemporary anxieties. It asks, between its whip-fast head-splatters and face-knifings, Is something essentially human lost when we turn ourselves over to technology? In form and function, though, Upgrade is as committed to the pulp past as it is the tech dystopia to come. Teeming with abandoned buildings full of thugs to be dispatched, ruled over by shadow corporations and wicked artificial intelligence, Whannell’s film plays like the smarter-than-you’d-think 2018 version of some 1988 kill-’em-all VHS cheapie. It even kicks off, I regret to say, with the murder of the hero-dude’s wife, a retrograde stake-raising trick that’s only slightly less embarrassing here than it was in Deadpool 2, but only because Upgrade at least doesn’t pretend it’s satirizing such stale beats.
The first surprise: STEM can talk right into Grey’s brain, in passionless elocution-class English (voiced by Simon Maiden) that suggests 2001’s Hal. The second: STEM can drive Grey himself when Grey allows it to, which comes in handy when he breaks into a home hunting for the gang of advanced-tech street thugs who killed his wife. Grey’s a man’s man, the kind of guy who rehabs old Firebirds and wants nothing to do with the new self-driving models. But he’s no killer. STEM, it turns out is — it’s an efficient and pitiless dicer of us ol’ meatbags. Upgrade may sound familiar in its genre plotting, in its paranoia, in its scenes of thugs getting butchered. But this element is new and electric. As Grey’s body carves up the villains, Grey’s face is aghast, disgusted, horrified — and, of course, a little turned on.
STEM, it seems, has none of Grey’s human concerns, so when Grey yields control of his body, he also releases it from his morality. Like us, he becomes an observer of the carnage that the movies have so often insisted is heroic. Crucially, like many of us, he doesn’t want to think about it, feels a little bad about it, even can’t bring himself, at one point, to look at it. Grey must try to scare information out of a bloodied baddie. STEM suggests some knife torture and then, when Grey balks, suggests he just close his eyes and let STEM do the cruel work. That’s one of many times that Whannell jolts Upgrade with something rarely seen in violent thrillers: ideas about violence. Who, at this moment, is the torturer? As a viewer, do you want the torturer to stop? If not, shouldn’t you at least have to face what he does?
Upgrade updates the drone and rendition conundrums of our 21st century warfare, assailing the comforting lie that our high-tech weapons (and our interrogation techniques) are somehow separate from us. Its top street killers even have gun barrels embedded right into the flesh of their arms, a development that shreds an NRA talking point: What stops a bad guy who is a gun? Whannell is less successful at his other stabs at social relevance. Those gun-arm dudes sometimes grunt unconvincingly about class grievances. One mook snarls to Grey’s wife (Melanie Vallejo) that she must look down on him, even though they’ve only know each other 10 seconds and he’s poking a knife at her. A cavernous warehouse is populated by virtual reality junkies blind to the real world outside their goggles, the floor around them littered with glow sticks the way the crack house in Jungle Fever is with vials and pills. Rather than commentary, a suggestion that maybe we should kick the fantasy habit, it’s merely a setting for tense scenes of hacking and fighting, just more fantasy we’re invited to jack into.
Still, if that flesh-rending is your bag, Upgrade offers memorable, legible fights, a compelling bombed-out retro-apocalyptic look and a mystery that seems obvious at the start but then keeps twisting. As Grey, Marshall-Green alternates between being pilot and passenger in this plot, making as much sense as he can of an impossible glut of emotions: grief and rage; the shock of limb loss and the stunned joy of recovery; the terror at STEM’s killing and his own secret pleasure in it; the determination to survive and keep fighting just a couple of scenes after being determined to kill himself. He’s matched, in several good scenes, by Get Out’s Betty Gabriel as the detective who has clearly seen some shit but can’t work out what to make of this guy. One welcome element of Upgrade is that it’s an original story in a franchise summer, a new set of characters and problems, so what I’m about to request might be counterproductive: How about a follow-up with her as the lead, chasing down gun-arm dudes and not having to avenge a goddamn dead wife?