This is a brutish, efficient and well-executed slice of cyberpunk action horror with a silly streak. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
Leigh Whannell — actor, filmmaker and half of the team behind torture porn classic “Saw” — branches into techno-futuristic action horror with the brutally deft “Upgrade,” starring Logan Marshall-Green. Take some “RoboCop,” fold in “John Wick,” sprinkle on a bit of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” season generously with fake blood, a wink and a nudge, and you get “Upgrade,” which imagines a not-so-distant future in which wearable tech has become a body-horror nightmare.
Our hero, Grey, is your average analog grease monkey, listening to soul music and tinkering with his muscle cars, while his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), prefers the luxuries of sleek self-driving vehicles and smart homes, which give her that much more time to work at her tech company. One night, driving home from dropping off a vintage car to tech prodigy Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), the technological utopia proves fallible — and fatal. The couple’s self-driving car rams into a homeless encampment and Grey and Asha are held up and left for dead by a crew of uncommonly weaponized bandits. Grey survives, a quadriplegic, while Asha does not.
The mysterious Eron makes Grey an offer he can’t refuse. With a team of private doctors, Eron conducts a secret surgery, implanting a tiny widget, STEM, into Grey’s spine. STEM becomes the link between Grey’s brain and his malfunctioning body, allowing him to walk. And STEM, as Grey discovers, can talk. He’s the robotic voice in Grey’s head, the HAL inside of him, controlling his body. STEM becomes his partner in crime-solving and his physical strength as they go after Asha’s killers, uncovering deeper and deeper conspiracies.
What makes “Upgrade” work is the tangible realities and fears that it plays on — we all wear FitBits: How long until criminals are getting functional guns implanted in their forearms? How much presence should Alexa, Siri and their counterparts they have in our lives? What if they turn on us?
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Another crucial element is Marshall-Green’s performance. As Grey pre-STEM, he’s brooding and moody. But desperate, grieving and newly jazzed up with powers, he’s both in awe and bewildered.
“Upgrade” is a brutish, efficient and well-executed slice of cyberpunk action horror with a silly streak. It tempers the violence with a few laughs. With present-day headlines about out-of-control self-driving cars and smart speakers acting autonomously, “Upgrade” couldn’t feel more timely.
★★★ “Upgrade,” with Logan Marshall-Green, Melanie Vallejo, Harrison Gilbertson. Directed by Leigh Whannell. 95 minutes. Rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language. Several theaters.