Not man. Not machine. More. Upgrade is many things—a brutal action film set against stylish neon cinematography and a catchy synth-inspired soundtrack, a dark comedy that finds humor in the most unexpected situations, but at the core, a story of grieving man still struggling to come to terms with loss. Leigh Whannell’s second film diverts from his usual involvement in franchise horror films to something personal, something that explores the need for—and consequences—behind revenge.
The plot is simple enough: mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) are victims of a violent attack that leaves Asha dead and Grey quadriplegic. Despite his limitations, he’s determined to track down those responsible for his wife’s death. What makes a seemingly straight-forward tale of revenge not so straight-forward is the fact that Upgrade takes place in a near-future where society has connected to technology in immeasurable ways—self-driving cars that you can talk to, smart homes with built-in A.I. systems that adapt to your habits, illegal weapons that can be implanted in your body, the list goes on.
The film doesn’t stop to explain how each of these innovations function, and that’s a strength that works in its favor. Instead of telling, they show. These are things that are a part of daily life and the audience goes along with it just like citizens of this society. Unlike the norm, Grey is a traditionalist that doesn’t trust technology. He’s a hands-on person, prefers to drive cars himself and is often uncomfortable around A.I. systems.
When he becomes wheelchair-bound, he has to rely on the very machines that he doesn’t trust. And when the opportunity for revenge presents itself in the form of a computer chip named STEM, he’s at odds. How can he find his wife’s killers when he’s in a wheelchair? STEM would solve that problem: a gadget that connects itself to a host with the intention of improving on it. In any other case, he wouldn’t go against his own values. But to avenge his wife, he agrees.
Not only does STEM talk to Grey and give him the ability to walk again, it provides him with incredible strength. The power to fight anyone in an effortless trance that no non-augmented person can compete with. He’s a killing machine, made possible by a highly intelligent A.I. that devotes itself to the mission of finding these killers. They form an unlikely bond, a friendship that’s based on physical dependence but also figuring out what works best for them.
Combat is the spectacle of the film, watching the various ways that Grey can shift and move his body to his advantage is both jarring and fascinating to watch. The camera moves with him, providing a video game-like effect that shifts from second to third-person. Like the audience, Grey is also discovering the extent of his STEM-fueled power. It would be expected for Upgrade to branch into total video game territory where Grey becomes a killing machine, but the film remembers that he’s still a person who’s traumatized by witnessing his wife’s death. He wants revenge, but he quickly realizes that he doesn’t want to kill. STEM, on the other hand, doesn’t mind doing the deed at all.
Although STEM can do the dirty work, the blood is still on Grey’s hands. There is comedy in the fact that he’s revolted by STEM’s actions; the A.I. has no problem mutilating and torturing potential leads, much to the obvious shock of Grey. But at the end of the day, he doesn’t want to be a killer. That’s where the emotion of the film comes in—unexpected, but welcomed. It’s so easy for revenge films to get caught up in the “revenge” part; brutally taking out the bad guys for a moment’s satisfaction, but then what? Upgrade goes beyond that. Grey never stops grieving. Everything he does, he does for Asha, her constant presence in the film reminds the audience of what’s motivating Grey. This is something that STEM will never understand, the ability to love.
As fun as it is to watch Grey act and react to his abilities, the film presents larger questions that end up serving as a commentary for how society interacts with technology. How much is too much? What lengths would you go to do what you think is the right thing? Is it better to live in a fantasy as opposed to reality? Is technology taking over our lives? Some of these questions can be easily answered, but Upgrade paints a picture of revenge that’s centered around technological innovations; what you think would be easy might be the hardest decision of your life.