This sci-fi/action film showcases what it would be like if The Six Million Dollar Man met John Wick. The result: an intense and shockingly violent film, with amazing fight choreography, a dash of body horror, and a grim twist.
The story takes place in the near future with our lives relying on technology. Imagine if Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri were practically perfected, and almost every home is basically a smart home. Cars can drive themselves and life seems to be made easier for people since many have computer augmentations in their body. We follow Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a mechanic with a love of vintage cars who has no computer augmentation out of fear for losing his humanity. A reasonable fear to have, especially now since we’re moving towards that future. His wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) is a businesswoman who works for Cobolt, a company that specializes in human-computer augmentation. Though both seem to be different, they do love each other and you can see how genuinely happy they are to be together.
Grey takes Asha to see one of his clients, who so happens to be the young tech innovator, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), that owns Vessel, a rival company to Cobalt. He introduces them to STEM (Simon Maiden), an AI chip that serves as an auxiliary brain.
On their way home, their self-driving car glitches and crashes. Four assailants walk up to Grey and Asha, paralyzing him and killing her. Grey watches helplessly and is awoken in a hospital as a quadriplegic. Eron Keen offers him a new life as being the first person to test out STEM by implanting him, thus allowing him to walk again. He eventually agrees and from then on the film takes a wild ride.
Admittedly, this is a story we’re all familiar with: someone wrongs our protagonist and he seeks out revenge. What sets this apart is the execution. Directed by Leigh Whannel, co-creator/writer of both the Saw and the Insidious franchises, directs his second and best feature thus far. From the action set pieces to the brutal fights, to compelling characters, Upgrade is one of the best genre films of not just the summer, but also the year.
Each supporting character has a certain quirk about them that sets them apart from some of the tropes that are expected in this type of story. Assigned to the case of Asha’s murder is Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) who goes and finds out more than she suspected.
The secondary antagonist Fisk (Benedict Hardie) is truly menacing and poses a real threat to Grey. He has computer augmentations, which makes for his fight scenes to be brutal. He also has a southern charm that helps him to be a more dynamic character and with the screen time he’s given, he leaves an impact.
The way people praise/speak about Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey (one of the best characters in all of science fiction), they will feel the same about STEM, who is the best character in the film. Though it is just a voice, the presence of the character is always felt and there is a hint of emotion. When he takes over Grey’s body, he does not hold back. STEM is brutal, cold, and as an AI he’s obviously always calculating, but we’re enjoying this symbiotic relationship he has with Grey.
When STEM takes over Grey’s body, it’s literally a machine fighting against humans. The action and fight choreography are similar to John Wick; even having nice and bright neon colors in the setting of the fight.
There is a small element of body horror incorporated in the film, which really helps build this sci-fi world. The film sets up that some human augmentations may be a bit more advanced and even grotesque. Some can be weaponized and the line between man and machine begins to fade.
There is a twist in the end that’s heartbreaking and macabre. It’s reminiscent of Ex Machina, but it remains to be very much its own thing and that’s all I’ll say on that. You will be shocked and awed at how good this film is. It may have slipped under the radar this summer, but it leaves just as big an impact as any other blockbuster coming out.