Upgrade was a movie that immediately piqued my interest when it first came out, but that I figured would be a typical action revenge slug-fest where the main character, through the help of an AI enhancement chip, would give him something akin to Kung Fu moves as it took over and helped him unleash all kind of badassery.
Thus I was very pleasantly surprised by the range and scope of this movie. Although still a self-contained revenge story, there were a lot of surprises that I didn’t expect, and a lot of artistic choices that I found made this movie rise up as much more than a simple revenge action flick.
Grey Trace is a mechanic whose wife is suddenly and tragically murdered, and he is left quadriplegic for reasons unknown.
After attempting to recreate the semblance of a life after his injury, he is offered an AI chip called STEM that promises to give him full mobility of his body back, billed as a ‘second brain’ of sorts. Once implanted, Grey goes on a quest to find out why he and his wife were attacked, through the help of STEM.
One of the things that really makes this film work is the chemistry between the AI, called STEM, and the main character, Grey Trace. STEM is voiced by Simon Maiden, whom I hadn’t heard of before, but his voicing is excellent. Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus) also gives an excellent performance, with both a wide range of emotion, action, and his ability to move his body in a highly wooden fashion as if STEM were controlling it. The way he moves his head, arms, and complete body as if it were a robot controlling parts of a whole, helped reinforce the illusion that STEM truly was in control. Another cool effect was how I experienced hearing STEM for the first time. Not only does it take you by surprise when he does speak, but only the speakers in the back of the theater projected his voice, whereas all speakers projected Grey’s voice, further creating the illusion that STEM was inside all of our heads.
The second thing that I loved about this movie was the pacing. Too many action films, in my view, rush all of their action sequences and don’t take their time, either via multiple scenes or too many shots. Not so with this movie. They take ample time to introduce characters and build up the relationship between Grey and his wife Asha.
I noticed that after about 30 minutes, the catalyst of his wife being murdered still hadn’t happened yet. Considering the movie’s run time of 95 minutes, this was clearly a choice the director made and couldn’t have decided lightly.
Finally, the third surprising element of the film is how it delivers the right dose of humor between all the action. Many movies have been able to be successful in this endeavor, injecting the right dose of humor to lighten up the gravity of the action, usually through quirky and witty banter from the main characters (ahem Marvel), but this movie doesn’t do that. Rather, the humor is shown through Grey’s reactions to everything that is happening to him. He reacts to the AI sentience of the chip much like any one of us might react: with surprise, alarm, incredulity, and then a slow begrudging level of trust due to the abilities and polite nature of the AI. As a result, when the AI does things that are perhaps logical but also inhuman and unpredictable to the rest of us, Grey serves as a vessel of the audience in sharing that mutual reaction of “WTF is happening right now???” In this way the movie’s humor works really well.
Adding to these three elements are simply a lot of little things that work well. Technology is advanced, but not ubiquitous, as is well represented in the dichotomy of Grey’s love for mechanical diesel engines and the simplicity of a tech-free life, in juxtaposition with his wife’s big embrace of everything advanced, electronic, and technological. So when he chooses (without much of a choice) to be implanted with STEM, it makes his situation that much more ironic, but not unfamiliar for cyberpunk fans who might have seen similar situations play out in movies such as RoboCop.
As I left the theater, I found that I was struck by the question does this count as cyberpunk? There are low life elements, and high tech elements, although it’s not chock-full as Blade Runner or The Matrix is. However, the technology that is ever present is a lot more biopunk than cyberpunk.
Like, for instance, what I like to call “Hand-Guns”.
Although there was a bit of cyberpunk, such as incidental shots of people in VR and a few VR scenes, these didn’t contribute that much to the story and therefore I’d call it Biopunk with some Cyberpunk elements.
This scene, with people randomly ambling about in the back using VR but not relevant to the story, is as close to VR as the movie gets. Although there are some drones, the most advanced tech again is implanted in bodies, thus I stand by my statement that it’s Biopunk with some cyberpunk elements. Although we do get some fun bits of dialogue such as when Grey asks “why would people want to be in VR for so long?” to which a hacker replies “maybe because for some people reality is more painful”.
Overall, I would give this movie a 9 or 9.5 out of 10. Although it’s not deep or profound like my favorite movie of all time, The Matrix, it does so much more than your average Revenge Action flick set in a quasi-cyberpunk setting. The score is good, and there are some truly beautiful scenes as well. Also, their use of camera angles to accentuate their action scenes was so much fun.
I’d highly recommend seeing it in theaters if you still can!
Check out the trailer that made me think it was nothing more than an action-revenge flick here: