Sci-fi thriller 'Upgrade': When your body has a mind of its own

Upgrade is an update on the old Six Million Dollar Man premise – a story about advanced technology used to rebuild and improve “a man barely alive.”

It’s set in a near future controlled and outfitted by tech monopolies, a world of sleek apartments, driverless cars, voice assistants, and – oops – violent street crime.

When Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is mangled and nearly killed by a sadistic gang, a tech lord and reclusive weirdo (is that redundant?) named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) offers to restore his useless limbs with a revolutionary new spinal implant.

Eron looks like Ronan Farrow and acts like Mark Zuckerberg and, paired with Jared Leto’s character in Blade Runner 2049, reflects an anxious mistrust of the tech overlords currently engineering our lives, with or without our consent.

Grey personifies this anxiety – he’s suspicious of new technology, questions its usefulness, and makes his living by rebuilding vintage cars. In his spare time, he works on his Carter-era Dodge muscle car, which signals his independence and autonomy.

>> READ MORE: ‘Saw’ mastermind Leigh Whannell on his new sci-fi movie, and why horror people are happy people

Both are challenged by the new device in his body. The implant, known as STEM, is artificially intelligent – smart enough to interface between Grey’s brain and his restored nervous system, also smart enough draw instantly from a top-secret omniscient mega-Google.

Thus, Grey has quick access to virtually any information he needs. It comes to Grey via psychic feed — STEM communicates with his host internally (we hear its voice). And though Grey and STEM are meant to work in harmony, sometimes Grey’s will and STEM’s programming are at cross-purposes, and we feel we’re watching a movie (mixing horror and comedy) about possession — which incidentally is a subject well known to writer-director Leigh Whannell, who wrote the Insidious movies.

Whannell conjures a decent sci-fi wrinkle here. Grey, his Steve Austin, isn’t really stronger, just enabled by STEM to function at the extreme outer range of his natural human capacity.

Since they share an instinct for survival, Grey and STEM team up on an independent investigation of the crime that caused his injury, setting freelancing vigilante Grey against the police officer (Betty Gabriel) who is assigned to his case.

Gabriel played the eerily zoned-out maid in Get Out, and Upgrade is another Blumhouse Production, which is to say, frugal. What works for horror, though, is less conducive to science-fiction, where paltry budgets are more of an impediment to the look of the finished product.

Whannell looks like he’s been given a budget of $1.49. Still, he manages to give the movie some B-movie thriller energy, and a certifiable money sequence – Grey, ceding control of his body to STEM, becoming a hand-to-hand combat badass, with ultrafast reaction time and moves choreographed by a supercomputer.

It’s a funny concept, helped by Marshall-Green’s blended look of pleasure and consternation at being the vessel for an invincibility that he enjoys but cannot control.

MOVIES

Upgrade

  • Directed by Leigh Whannell. With Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo. Distributed by Blumhouse.
  • Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
  • Parents guide: R (violence)
  • Playing at: Area theaters