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Everybody Needs to See ‘Upgrade’

There’s some surprisingly clever ruminations on technology behind the film’s gory, action-packed veneer

Sony Pictures/OTL Releasing

The sensible MoviePass subscriber that wants to make the best use of their (modest) investment will go to the theater as often as possible. The types of movies that benefit from MoviePass subscribers, then, aren’t your Avengers: Infinity Wars or Deadpool 2s—odds are, you’re seeing those films regardless—it’s the ones that don’t make headlines. One of my favorite MoviePass forays this year was The Commuter; a fun, unapologetically silly Liam Neeson vehicle that added to the ever-growing library of Liam Neeson Failing at Transportation action flicks. Was the movie worth the MoviePass trip? Hell yeah. Would I willingly spend north of $15 to watch The Commuter? Hell no.

I did my MoviePass thing this weekend for another film that I figured would be some mindless Commuter-esque escapism: Upgrade, a sci-fi action flick from BH Tilt, the micro-studio cofounded by Blumhouse Productions and the fledgling indie label Neon. It checked off the very modest requisite for a MoviePass movie, meaning its Rotten Tomatoes score wasn’t really bad. (Far from it, in fact: Upgrade is over 80 percent “fresh.”)

But Upgrade didn’t just meet this very low bar—it stands as a worthy successor to the Paul Verhoeven movies (RoboCop, Total Recall) by which it was clearly inspired.

A movie as tech-savvy as Upgrade, naturally, has a blue-collar protagonist that seems averse to anything newer than a flip phone. Logan Marshall-Green plays Grey Trace, an old-fashioned mechanic that fixes old-fashioned muscle cars in a not-so-distant future where self-driving cars are the norm and humans can have cybernetic implants. Grey’s life is upended when his wife Asha is murdered and Grey is paralyzed from the neck down by four armed men (one of many Upgrade twists being one of those dudes having a gun implanted into his arm that shoots out of his palm). Without his wife, and unable to exact revenge as a quadriplegic, Grey reluctantly allows Eron Keen—a rich, baby-faced tech mogul—to inject an A.I. implant called Stem into his body that allows him to move again. Another twist: Stem can talk to Grey inside his head and, if given permission, take over Grey’s body to perform some pretty impressive stunts.

To see Upgrade—and specifically Marshall-Green in the role—recalls one of the most anticipated movies of the fall. Like Upgrade, Sony Pictures’ Venom is about a man, Eddie Brock, who is stuck with something that can talk to him and gives him enhanced abilities—the difference being the symbiote of Venom is an alien organism and not extremely advanced A.I. To wit: The key scenes of the Upgrade and Venom trailers see both protagonists unwittingly dispatch people at the behest of the foreign, sentient things inside their bodies—while both characters look horrified at what they’re now capable of. Also, Venom’s Tom Hardy and Marshall-Green look like long-lost identical twins. (Can we confirm these two have ever been sighted in the same room? I smell a #Conspiracy.)

The alien symbiote of Venom (at least in the comics) is able to extract the most malicious qualities of the person it’s infecting. Stem operates under a similar guise; it’s Grey that wants to find the people that killed his wife, but it’s the A.I. inside his head that makes it possible.

Under the gory veneer of Upgrade’s action scenes—and I can’t stress enough how visceral it is to watch a Stem-controlled Grey nearly decapitate someone with a kitchen knife—is a sly commentary on humanity’s propensity to offload responsibilities onto increasingly human-like machines. For the people of Upgrade, literally upgrading your body with technological components is the path forward and is becoming normalized, thereby making flesh and blood—what makes us human—increasingly undervalued. Grey’s predicament—nearly his entire body being paralyzed—is a heavy-handed metaphor for this subtext. In Upgrade, mankind as we know it will soon be obsolete, ushering in an era of A.I.-advanced humans that might have more in common with the hosts of Westworld than the humans of the modern day. (This was some very heavy shit for what I thought was some quick MoviePass escapism on a Saturday afternoon!)

The Stem-assisted oversights in Upgrade are mostly played for laughs—it never fails to be a hilarious juxtaposition seeing Marshall-Green’s body beat the shit out of someone while his face looks completely mortified. But the toll of Grey’s actions, and the true nature of that night he lost his wife and, in essence, his body, arrives at a chilling conclusion that befits the dankest twists of Black Mirror. Upgrade is the ultimate sci-fi combo: a film that deals with heavy moral implications of technology overuse, interlaced with unforgettably gory action scenes, caustic humor, and an impressively physical lead performance. Forget MoviePass: Fans of the genre should be seeking out this movie no matter what. It’s only June, but Venom is already facing stiff competition among movies with body-snatchers and movies with people that may or may not be Tom Hardy.