Upgrade is a gripping, fun and well-plotted sci-fi action thriller with brains that raises some digital-age ethical questions we’re going to have to grapple with sooner rather than later.
Australian writer-director Leigh Whannell’s new feature Upgrade is the latest in a mounting number of cyber-sci-fi movies that explore the relationship between human and AI, and even more intriguingly, the fusion of the two. And it’s one of the good ones, combining a great story with pumpin’ thriller action featuring some pretty extreme but thoroughly enjoyable violence.
Mind you, it’s a tale that doesn’t make much sense if you think about it longer than 10 seconds, but who cares? It works damned well on its own terms and just when you’re preparing to groan at what is shaping as a cop-out “it was all a dream” ending, is quite ingeniously resolved (praise be, big praise be!). But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The setting is big city America of the near(ish) future (the film was actually shot in Melbourne). Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is left paraplegic and widowed when he and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) are attacked by a gang of thugs who hack their driverless car. Shattered and on the point of letting go, Grey is approached by tech wiz Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), who offers to restore him to full function by implanting an experimental micro-chip named “Stem” in his ruptured spine. The offer comes with a strict confidentiality clause attached, and with nothing to lose, Grey accepts.
The implant is spectacularly successful, giving him super-human physical capabilities and lightning-fast reflexes that render him unbeatable in a fight. However, Eron has omitted a little detail – Stem talks! This is not only crucial to the narrative, but also opens up an ethical Pandora’s box.
See, Grey can activate or disable Stem on command. Activated, Stem does Grey’s bidding, and allowed to take over in fight mode inflicts terrible damage on adversaries. These pop up on a regular basis as Grey sets out to track down and wreak vengeance on his wife’s killers. So here’s the rub: is Stem solely responsible for the carnage it inflicts, or is the responsibility Grey’s? Or are they both culpable?
Grey doesn’t seem overly concerned, since he seemingly watches on passively almost as a separate entity as Stem takes over his body in dangerous situations, turning it into a torture or killing machine. There are obvious real-world parallels in contemporary software-driven warfare, in which deadly weaponry is trained on the enemy by operators far distant from the battlefield.
Of course, it soon becomes apparent that Grey is not the only chip-implanted killing machine out there, which makes for some fascinating, funny and incredibly well-executed fast-motion fight sequences. That’s one of the keys to the success of Upgrade – the filmmakers take the violence seriously, and it’s bloodily graphic, but you feel free to be thrilled and entertained, probably because the worst of the carnage is perpetrated by and visited on men fused with machines.
As the narrative heads for home, it emerges that Stem and Grey have different agendas, and the dilemma arises as to how they can co-exist when they are fused as one. You won’t see the solution coming cos it’s a bit of a brain boggler, but it works a treat.
Upgrade is a sci-fi thriller par excellence, a hugely entertaining amalgam of high-octane action and gripping story that also raises some questions we’re going to have to think long and hard about as we progress ever further into the digital age. I reckon it’s the best Australian sci-fi flick since the brilliant Predestination, and that’s high praise indeed. See it.
Movie Website: https://www.upgrade.movie/
Australian release date: Upgrade in Australian cinemas from June 14, 2018
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