Someone once asked me if there was a movie I wish I could have made. If asked again, I would respond with the following:
“I wish I had made Upgrade.”
Upgrade is about Grey Trace, a man who becomes a quadriplegic after he and his wife are attacked by a group of cybernetic human beings. Tech genius Eron Keen approaches Grey and offers him the chance to walk again by surgical attaching STEM to his spinal cord. STEM is an artificial intelligence that Keen created “to do anything.” Grey reluctantly agrees to undergo the surgery. He recovers his ability to move, but he realizes that STEM has a mind of its own. STEM is able to speak to Grey and, if given permission, control his body. Imagine a built-in Amazon Echo that can also do martial arts. Together, Grey and STEM go after the men that killed Grey’s wife and unravel the mystery behind the attack.
The movie, for all sakes and purposes, sounds like a B-movie. Imagine a 70s movie with a slightly more realistic vision of the future (to be fair, it is 40 years of tech later). The cinematography combines muted noir colors with neon. There were several times in the film where I was reminded of Blade Runner, another film which combines beautiful vistas with gritty locations.
The biggest reason I enjoyed the movie is because I am a bit of a technophobe. The advancement of technology in the coming years cannot be predicted, and I fear that we will lose a piece of ourselves as we go on. Grey shares that discomfort. He is uncomfortable enough with his wife’s self-driving car that he insists she journey with him. He expresses concern about technological job loss and shakes his head at people who use virtual reality. Technology should be used as a tool, not a substitute for our reality.
Upgrade finds a way to express a vision of the future I myself have never really been able to do. STEM is able to control what a Grey does and can access the internet without his permission. Casual cybernetic enhancements may not be in our near future, but I foresee us blindly welcoming advancement in this field.
At the end of the day, I am optimistic about the future. Humanity has always had doomsday theories that either never occur or are successfully prevented. Upgrade is not a reflection of our modern day, but rather a vision of what could be. The movie is a satisfying B-movie while somehow also being a social commentary on our infatuation with technology.
Note: Spoilers after the final ratings.
For a normal movie: 8/10
For a technological thriller: 10/10
There are several twists and turns in Upgrade, and some are more predictable than others. It turns out that STEM was the orchestrator of everything, only helping Grey until he could seize control of Grey’s body. The movie’s final reveal that STEM has sealed off Grey’s mind from his body is a twist that could have been in a Black Mirror episode or an alternate ending of Get Out. Grey “wakes up” in a world where he is neither a quadriplegic nor a widower. He somehow gets a happy ending while a nightmarish reality exists outside his head. I found it strangely beautiful. It’s a tragedy with a happy ending.