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‘Upgrade’ Is Like ‘Taken’ Mixed With ‘RoboCop’ Mixed With ‘Ex Machina’

Meaning: a smart, violent revenge movie about improving a human with computers that ultimately reveals the perils of A.I.

Blumhouse/Ringer illustration

Three things you need to know: (1) Upgrade, which opened wide on Friday, is about a man who gets a supremely sophisticated computer chip installed into his spine after he becomes a quadriplegic. (2) The chip works in conjunction with the man’s brain, allowing him to move his arms and legs again. (3) The chip, when granted permission, also has the ability to take complete control of the man’s body and operate independently of his brain, meaning the man can, in a snap, become an ultra-advanced human.

And we’re going to talk about all of that in a moment.

But first:

There is something uniquely interesting about the idea of instantly becoming a better version of yourself. You plug your body into a giant supercomputer, upload some programs into your brain, and then voila! You know kung fu, like Neo in The Matrix. Or you take a tiny clear pill, wait a few seconds, and then voila! You can conduct an electrocardiogram by just placing your gloved hand on someone’s chest, like Eddie in Limitless. Or you follow some criminals into a warehouse, get shot all to shit by a billion bullets, and then voila! You become a half-robot, half-human cop with a zero-tolerance policy on smoking, like Alex in RoboCop.

(Please know that, should all of those become actual options in the future, the Limitless pill program is my no. 1 pick for self-improvement.)

(Also please know that my favorite thing about Limitless is that it finally creates a universe where a handsome white man can learn what it’s like to have some real advantages in the world for once.)

But so: There is something uniquely interesting about the idea of instantly becoming a better version of yourself. It’s an intoxicating thought, really; an overpowering one, even; certainly an intriguing one, for sure. It’s one that (I would suspect) most everyone has had; an urge to be smarter, to be stronger, to be more observant, to be more insightful, to be more capable. That’s why movies that provide that very specific kind of setup are always so interesting, even when they’re obviously bad, and an easy example here is 2014’s Lucy.

In it, Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a mediocre woman who inadvertently becomes a supergenius who can bend matter with her thoughts and coalesce with the universe around her but mostly just spends her time saying phrases like “Now that I have access to the furthest reaches of my brain ...” and staring off into space and tilting her head. Here’s a scene in which she does literally all of those things, and it’s the only scene you need to watch to know exactly the temperature of the movie:

Upgrade is, generally speaking, this kind of movie, too (however it is far, Far, FAR more enjoyable than Lucy). What’s cool, though, is that it also mixes in pieces of other enjoyable movie premises, as well. The main parts of the plot:

  • The movie is set in the future. (They don’t say exactly when, but there are just enough fancy gadgets to let you know that it’s not today, but not so many fancy gadgets that it ever feels like they’re a great deal ahead of where we are right now. I’d guess it’s set, at max, somewhere between 2038 and 2048.)
  • A husband (Grey) and wife (Asha) get into a car accident while riding in the wife’s self-driving car.
  • After the crash, a group of hoodlums attack Grey and Asha, killing her and paralyzing him from the neck down.
  • A tech genius (Eron) offers to have his secret team of doctors surgically install a chip into Grey’s neck that will allow him to walk again.
  • After some prodding, Grey accepts (mostly because he wants to walk again so he can begin hunting down the men who killed his wife).
  • The chip serves as a sort of signal-relay device for him. His brain sends messages to it, and then the chip sends them to the rest of his body.
  • Once the chip is installed, it begins talking to Grey. (It’s a computerized male voice, and it identifies itself as “Stem.”)
  • Things go well at first—Stem proves itself incredibly useful in several situations—but only for a while.
  • Soon enough, things begin to go badly with Stem.
  • And then things get even worse.
  • And then [REDACTED].
  • And then [REDACTED].
  • And then [REDACTED].
  • And then the movie is over.

Do you know what Upgrade is? Upgrade is like if you mushed Taken (because it’s a revenge movie, too) with RoboCop (because it’s a movie where a person’s life gets wrecked hard by bad people and then the person gets an insta-upgrade) with Ex Machina (because it’s a movie where people find out that, while artificial intelligence is cool and all, it’s not a thing that humans are truly equipped to deal with, no matter how smart a particular human might be). That’s what it feels like.

And it 100 percent should’ve ended up being a disaster, but it 100 percent did not. It is smart and fun and funny and violent. I’m going to link to a specific part of the first trailer that came out for Upgrade. It’s a truncated version of the scene in the movie that, were I to guess, I’d say is going to live the longest and be referenced the most:

What’s happening here is Grey is breaking into the house of one of the men who attacked him and his wife. The man (a former Marine) begins to kick the shit out of Grey, and so STEM asks for permission to intervene. Grey says yes, STEM takes over, and the whole next minute is entirely incredible, and you can get a sense of it in the trailer but you really have no idea how great it ends up being until you get to watch the full version of the fight play out.

(This, I suspect, is owed to how good Logan Marshall-Green, the actor who plays Grey, is at making it seem like his body really is operating under the direction of a computer chip. His arms and legs are flying all over and around, and the bad guy is getting entirely wrecked and suddenly can’t even get a single shot in on Grey, and Grey’s face is just totally mortified the entire time. It’s hilarious and invigorating, a thing made all the more spectacular when you realize that it’s happening during a truly great movie fight scene.)

The fight ends with the bad guy getting his whole head ripped apart from the jaw, and even though I’m telling you that exactly that thing is going to happen, and even though you can get a sense of how turbulent that specific death is from the trailer, I promise that you have no idea how truly and especially devastating it is to actually watch happen.

There were maybe 20 people in the theater when I watched Upgrade. When the head-shredding scene happened, it sounded a lot like each and every one of them gasped in shock and horror. (I literally covered my mouth with my hand and muttered “Oh my god!” to myself as the guy’s skull was broken apart, which is a response that I thought only happened to preteens on Disney sitcoms, not to adults in real life.)

It was a great theater experience.

Upgrade is a great theater experience.