‘Upgrade’ Delivers Fun Techno-Thriller With Plenty of Bloodshed

Upgrade” imagines a future where the machines are slowly taking over with a blood-soaked attitude that demands you get some popcorn. It’s that kind of thriller that focuses on one decent idea and brings it to life with an adequate running time. The low-budget action works better than most big budget extravaganzas and the twists have a creepy, “Twilight Zone” vibe. Yet another title from Blumhouse Productions, this one is a return to what makes the company’s films a wicked good time.

Logan Marshall-Green plays Grey Trace, a technophobic car mechanic in the near future who lives comfortably due to the work of his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo), who makes better money from her work at a major tech corporation. Technology has rapidly advanced to the point where you can drive yourself or simply hitch a ride on a self-operating cab. One night tragedy strikes when the couple are brutally mugged and Asha is killed. Grey is left quadriplegic and in a profound, vengeful depression. The police have no leads and Grey seriously considers ending his life. But salvation comes in the form of one of his usual clients, a mega-wealthy tech guru named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), who makes Grey a unique offer. He has developed a revolutionary computer chip named Stem, which he wants to implant into Grey’s neck. The idea is Stem will function as the bridge between Grey’s brain and body, allowing him to walk again. Grey goes for it and indeed, he is back to normal. But soon enough, Stem starts speaking to Grey, revealing that it’s not just any regular microchip. Not only can Stem help Grey walk, it can aid in helping him find Asha’s killers by soaking in details from the evidence a mere human brain can’t process. The chip can even turn Grey into a deadly fighting machine, which comes in handy when he searches for suspects at local bars. But as Grey gets closer to the truth about his wife’s murder, his relationship with Stem will take darker turns.

“Upgrade” is the very definition of a classic B-movie. It could care less about fully developing any sort of meditative, philosophical approach to its ideas. This is not “Ex-Machina.” What it does well is deliver an entertaining, morbidly funny experience. Because it knows its genre well, the movie is never a waste. Director Leigh Whannell has written a devilishly engaging script which has the sole aim of generating suspense for 96 minutes. This is an example of how a small movie can be an infinitely better time than a behemoth like “Rampage.” Whannell relishes in showing heads being blown off and knives going through hands, but with comedic gusto. When Stem takes over in the fight scenes, Grey is horrified at the things he’s doing. In one scene Stem kills a criminal and Grey can’t help but go puke. This is that sort of gruesome B-movie technique where you chuckle, but at the same time nod, because any sane person would react the same way if they were in Grey’s shoes. The relationship between Grey and Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden) becomes believable becomes of its contrast. Grey is the regular guy continuously in shock, while Stem has a cold, brutally rational tone. Other little touches are imbued with classic, sci-fi silliness that is nonetheless creepy, like the villain Fisk (Benedict Hardie), who is capable of sneezing out small little particles that turn into blades once they enter a victim. Yes, this sort of thing is goofy, but it works because Whannell doesn’t over-do it or continue pushing it as a gimmick.

Whannell has enough respect for his audience to put some real thought into the story. Like “Black Mirror,” this is science fiction where the premise itself is not too implausible. “Upgrade” touches on themes that are quite relevant. Grey is the kind of working class joe who ponders who the rise of technology will affect his line of work. He is trapped in the sort of nightmare McDonald’s or CVS workers conjure in their minds with the encroaching presence of those big new, self-help automated systems. There is an excellent series of moments soon after Grey’s accident, where the film imagines what life will be like for a paralyzed person in the future. Nothing is exaggerated, and the robotic arms helping Grey feed himself and inject his medicine are absolutely believable. Yet during a car chase scene Stem admits it can’t drive a car in a spontaneous situation, so Grey takes over and drives like a pro (of course). The movie is peppered with nice little moments like that. The way Whannell and his crew envision the future is imaginative, with futuristic cars that you can imagine seeing on the news tomorrow. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio lights the film with a baroque, neon look that makes technology look eerie. The music score by Jed Palmer has a glossy, electronic feel that sounds like a throwback to 1980s, B-movie synth styles.

“Upgrade” works like a nice escape from the ongoing barrage of big budget spectacles now dominating the box office. It features a strong, simple story and some entertaining performances, including Betty Gabriel as Detective Cortez, the cop you always need in these mysteries who is out of the loop. Harrison Gilbertson as Eron has fun as the typical mad scientist. As the movie hurtles towards its climax, you’re just going with it. The ending is itself satisfying because it doesn’t go for the obvious. “Upgrade” delivers what it promises, while tapping into our ongoing love-hate relationship with the technology which in a sense, already runs our lives.

Upgrade” releases June 1 in theaters nationwide.