Upgrade is the most recent film from director Leigh Whannell (of Saw fame). The Science Fiction film seems to be flying slightly under the radar, likely as a result of its microscopic budget. In an era where Sci-Fi films like Blade Runner 2049 are produce for upwards of $185 million, a $3 million-dollar sci-fi film seems to pale by comparison.
But Upgrade gets back to the basics of science fiction. In true Asimoff style, the story is a collision between mankind and technology. Set in the near future, the film explores life in the perpetual surveillance state. The film also explores implants and augmentation, and when we combine the human body with tech, where does one end and the next begin. For a Luddite like me, this is the most terrifying film I have seen in a long while.
The film follows Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) an auto mechanic who makes a living in the digital-world of the future by restoring classic cars. He is a man desperately out of touch with the rest of the planet. After his wife is murdered in a car-jacking and he is left a quadriplegic. After contemplating, and then attempting, suicide, Grey ends up hospitalized where he meets a tech-billionaire who promises to restore his motor-function. STEM is how he does it, an AI spinal cord implant which help to reconnect his nervous system.
In doing so, Grey is given the ability to hunt down the car-jackers who killed his wife; but STEM also grants him super-human-ninja-powers. This is all really badass. The movie has some spectacular fight sequences, as Grey, with mechanical precision integrates the environment as he battles futuristic-enhanced humans. These fight sequences are graphic and gory, as we should expect from a horror-film director.
The film is lean, probably due to the budget. This actually works very well, as the story is a character-driven drama, following one-man as he seeks to adapt to the dystopian future. Grey begins to question reality, his action, and the control he has over his own body. Is he controlling STEM, or is STEM controlling him?
With the looming “singularity” before us, and stories of Artificial Intelligence progressing faster than we imagined; the movie is an interesting thought exercise exploring the world tomorrow, and a place for humans amongst the machines. What is the relationship between technology and mankind? Are we transforming technology, or is technology transforming us?
Upgrade isn’t the world’s greatest science fiction film, but it is a good one. For all the young filmmakers of the world, it is a great lesson of pushing the limits of storytelling on limited budget.