The cutting edge tech of Upgrade extends to throwaway gadgets like biomechanically-implanted guns (side-arms), a weaponised nanotech sneeze, and memory-retaining contact lenses but its star turn/mcguffin is the artificially intelligent spinal implant STEM — which is at once the hero’s literally enabling sidekick and potential arch-nemesis/successor. While looking to the future, writer-director Leigh Whannell has stitched together elements from mad science sagas from Frankenstein to RoboCop and also drawn on vigilante justice tropes shared by Death Wish and The Crow. Like, for instance, the mixed-gender being of Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein Created Woman, the machine-flesh hybrid protagonist is less interested in exploring the potential of post-human existence than in getting revenge on the goons who murdered an idealised love interest. Cannily, Whannell plays the track-down-the-killers plot as a feint, while the real Frankensteinian tussle between creator – here, weedy-seeming tech shut-in Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), obviously named to evoke Elon Musk – and creation runs as a background program.
The result is a smooth, sleek, muscular genre picture (from the Blumhouse specialty label) that perhaps aspires to found a franchise whose selling point is a unique fighting style devised by choreographer-cum-stunt double Chris Weir whereby aptly-named hapless quadriplegic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) lets STEM usurp control over his body and puppeteers his unfeeling limbs through a succession of forceful blocks and punches so he can best even the previous generation of upgraded cyborg warriors in brutal battles. The versatile, insectlike STEM can also glean clues the police department – represented by Blumhouse regular Betty Gabriel, the mad-eyed smiling housekeeper from Get Out – have overlooked from a simple scan of drone footage and hack into multiple driverless cars to thwart a vehicular pursuit. Smoothly voiced by Simon Maiden, STEM evokes both the reassuring purr of the computer-controlled car KITT on Knight Rider and the incipient megalomania of HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey.
Whannell previously scripted (and acted in) James Wan’s Saw and Insidious, and made a low-pressure directorial debut with Insidious The Last Key. He favours broad strokes characterisation – establishing Grey as a luddite technophobe by introducing him listening to Howlin’ Wolf on vinyl as he tinkers on a muscle car’s engine with a wrench – and stark, sparse, comic book-establishing panel settings like Eron Keen’s dark underground lair (with an operating table under a geodesic indoor tent) and the off-the-grid slum dive bar where the bad goons hang out (the bathroom floor is littered with bullet casings). This doesn’t aspire to the minutely-detailed (and expensive) futuristic backdrop seen in Minority Report or the Matrix sequels, but does sketch in a divided society of technological haves, who live in fortified luxury, and have-nots, who huddle around open fires in urban wastelands.
In getting its story told swiftly, a few plot points are more or less tokenistic – a rivalry between the biotech company the hero’s wife works for and Keen’s empire seems to be a key to the conspiracy, but is never resolved and this is one of those films so plainly cynical about its world that we assume all corporate entities and private ex-military hit squads are in it together to give the hero a hard time. Marshall-Green, whose screen presence is oddly reminiscent of Whannell’s in his signature Saw role, gets a few moments of warmth with his soon-polished-off love interest, but is more enthused by antagonistic scenes with lizardy villains like the contact-phobic Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) and prissily moustached and Hitler-hairstyled chief assassin Fisk (Benedict Hardie). Most of his screen time, however, is spent ostensibly talking to himself as Grey gradually cedes more and more control to the voice in his head. The punchline, which evokes a twist much used since it was introduced in an influential 1985 dystopia, has an obvious get-out clause that can come into action if further Upgrades are required.