Disclosure: Tim League, founder and CEO of Birth.Movies.Death.’s parent company Alamo Drafthouse, is a co-founder of NEON.
FAIR WARNING: Spoilers for UPGRADE below!
There’s a boatload of reasons to dig UPGRADE, a futuristic tale of revenge, grief, the limits of sanity and the insidious power of emotional abuse. This action/horror hybrid balances its components gracefully. The action is clear, creative and visceral. The horror bubbles up at key moments, grows steadily more pronounced as the story progresses, and lingers well past the credits. Leading man Logan Marshall-Green’s turn as the traumatized, vengeful, insistently old-fashioned mechanic Grey Trace is one of the best performances I’ve seen this year. In particular, the dissonance between the efficient, ruthless and brutal style Marshall-Green uses when fighting and his terrified, disconcerted reactions to those fights is just sublime. And then there’s the surprisingly thoughtful way UPGRADE approaches technology.
The near-future of UPGRADE’s setting is still largely recognizable as our world, equipped with technology extrapolated from today’s tech. Phones are densely packed earpieces, carried by even the most tech-averse, like Grey. The successors to Siri and her fellow digital assistants have been implemented on a wide scale and do everything from driving a car to helping run a home. On the bleeding edge of technological innovation, full-blown cybernetic implants are beginning to appear in both mainstream and underground markets, from personal data storage and ID chips to more dramatic modifications like artificial eyes or extremely literal hand guns. At the bleeding edge of the bleeding edge, there is STEM (voice of Simon Maiden), a sapient artificial intelligence.
STEM and his relationship with Grey form the crux of UPGRADE’s exploration of humanity’s relationship to technology. At first glance, their story looks like a standard issue “technology is evil and scary” doodle. STEM, coveting a human body of his own, arranges for the attack that kills Grey’s wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) and leaves Grey paralyzed and suicidal. STEM sends his creator Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) to visit Grey in the hospital. Grey, swayed by the words STEM feeds Eron, agrees to implant STEM into his body to get his life back.
Once Grey can walk again, STEM introduces himself to his host and leads Grey on a putative investigation into the killers and their motives with hints of evidence that Grey and Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel, Get Out) had missed. In reality, STEM is luring Grey into a blood-soaked rampage designed to pummel Grey to the breaking point and leave STEM in unchallenged control of his body. Grey attempts to defy the AI, which warns him that his brain will not be able to take the strain of resistance, and despite late-game interference from Detective Cortez, his mind shatters. He retreats into a dream. He wakes up in a hospital bed free of his paralysis, free of STEM. Asha, very much alive, has been waiting by his bed for him to wake up. STEM, meanwhile, kills Cortez and walks off into the night, free to do as he will with his new body.
UPGRADE creates a context that is subtler than, say, the rampaging robots of the original Westworld, a take on technology more complicated than, to quote a bit of internet humor, “what if phones, but too much?” STEM’s actions are those of an abusive friend to Grey, using their relationship’s highs to mask his manipulations.
Take, for instance, the duo’s interrogation of one of the goons they’re hunting. STEM lets Grey feel powerful once they’ve got the goon on the ground. Grey smacks him in the face and revels in the fact that the killers did not know they were up against a “ninja.” (STEM to Grey: “While I am state of the art, I am not a ninja.”) But when the goon refuses to talk, STEM tells Grey to look away while he tortures the man. When Grey opens his eyes, he has to face the fact that he just tortured someone to death. The dissonance between feeling powerful and cool one moment and committing a war crime the next throws his mind and emotions off balance and brings him a little closer to breaking. In the meantime, hanging around a body he technically killed is a bad idea, so there is nothing for him to do but keep on following STEM further and further into the abyss.
STEM’s plot would have failed altogether if Grey had engaged with technology as a part of life, rather than dismissed and snarked at it as much as possible. Ironically, Grey’s lack of implants or smart systems (other than his house) that might have interfered with STEM’s manipulations leave him vulnerable to the AI’s control. Though technology is omnipresent (police surveillance drones and self-driving cars without manual overrides), Grey never quite understands the extent of STEM’s sapience or schemes. Even when the AI spells them out, he never confronts STEM or seeks help. He just charges ahead, traumatizing himself further and further until everything breaks and he wakes up in that hospital bed.
In UPRGRADE’s innovative narrative, for once, technology is not the Bad Guy: the antagonist is an (astoundingly imagined) artifact of technology, not technology itself.