Leigh Whannell has a way of writing horror that totally delivers the thrills, but also leaves you with something to chew on if you think about it. That’s what I always loved about Saw. The traps were fun but Jigsaw’s philosophy that made me love his mission. Insidious turned the lens on the family, and with Upgrade Whannell tackles technology.
In 2018 Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) would be the guy who refuses to own a cell phone or post on social media. In the future he’s building classic cars for special order customers who, like himself, don’t like letting cars drive themselves or automated houses control everything. When he’s rendered quadriplegic in an attack, a scientist (Harrison Gilbertson) offers Grey a chance to walk again, but it requires groundbreaking new technology.
That’s how they get you, right? You can do everything manually, but they’ll wait until you’re at your most vulnerable. I suppose Grey could still resign himself to a life of immobilization if he really wants to stick to his guns, but quadriplegic care at this point involves relying on machines anyway. So he accepts Stem, which moves his body for him, oh and also talks to him (voice of Simon Maiden) and has a mind of its own.
The fear of technology is palpable in Upgrade. People should already be more wary of social media. They’re just giving their private information away all for the validation of likes in return. It could be deadly with all the stalkers out there but Whannell takes it further. It’s a self driving car that drives Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) into danger in the first place. People have modified themselves with enhancements that would make David Cronenberg cringe. Even when Stem makes Grey walk, you can tell he’s not really walking. Marshall-Green really captures the creepiness of a human body being controlled mechanically.
Then Stem reveals he can just take over for Grey if he wants. When Grey starts looking for the people who attacked him, Stem can do the fighting for him. The action is cool, sort of a Matrix choreography but still confined to Earth’s gravity. Stem of course takes things way too far and by that point Grey is in too deep to back out.
Upgrade is an action movie as much as anything and it is badass. It’s probably horrific to today’s audience that’s used to PG-13 action, but violence used to be this brutal. Granted, Whannell still comes up with some kill shots you’ve never seen before, and I’ve seen everything.
Upgrade leaves Grey and Stem in a disturbing place, and Whannell is careful to layer it all in the script without telegraphing it. I hope it makes the audience think twice about how much control we’re giving technology, as they’re having fun with the action. Perhaps the scariest thing about Stem is that he’s in your head. You can’t just unplug him and plug him back in when he’s plugged into your brain and spine.
As a director he gives the future a unique look and again, we’ve seen a lot of dystopian futures. It is a world that could support other movies, but Upgrade is definitely focused on Stem. It’s just the suggestion that there is a greater world, like Blade Runner or Robocop.
Listen, I’m not going to give up on technology. My whole job exists because of the internet, and I like having streaming movies and television. I certainly don’t want to live on a farm and do manual labor. But as a wise man once said, with great power comes great responsibility. I’m glad stories like Upgrade exist throughout the ages to remind us not to go too far. No one listens anyway, so in 20 years some filmmaker will have to come up with something even scarier than computer controlled people.