UPGRADE – great idea, curiously executed

It was the computer HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey. The machines in the Terminator films. The human looking robot in Ex Machina. The replicants in Blade Runner. The threat of artificial intelligence is a popular theme in science fiction, and here it is again, in a new film, Upgrade.

To be fair, Upgrade takes this well worn idea and does give it a fresh twist. For that, it deserves credit. I found the writers also came up with a clever and satisfying ending – a rare thing. But even with a good idea and a good ending, the journey through most of the film was for me somewhat unfocussed, at times  frustratingly so. This detracts from what could have been a top notch sci fi thriller. Upgrade lands somewhere below that.

Let’s get back to the idea. The artificial intelligence here is a bug sized and shaped computer chip, implanted into Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who’s left a quadraplegic after a gang attacks him and murders his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo).

But a brilliant young inventor called Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) restores Grey to full health, by implanting what he calls STEM, the computer chip, onto Grey’s spine. It can give him back his mobility, and more. It is sentient. It talks to Trace, in a voice only he can hear in his mind. It is on full time mobile data, able to scan, research, and interface with other devices. And, if Grey gives it permission, it can take control of his body, with the added bonus of enhanced speed and strength.

Given that Trace is hell bent on tracking down the gang who murdered his wife, he’s open to taking advantage of the enhancements STEM offers him. So he exacts his revenge, drawing the attention of detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel).

So ensues the cat and mouse game of the middle of the film. There are plot twists to digest, and, to reinforce my earlier point, they held my attention.

Here’s where things get a little confused. Writer director Leigh Whannell brings to this film a decent CV in low budget horror. His most notable works are the Saw films. And Upgrade more than dabbles in this genre. So it moves from noir-ish sci fi thriller to occasional scenes of b movie gore and humour, which leaves you not quite sure how seriously the film maker wants you to take his story.

A case in point are the scenes where Trace relinquishes control of his body to STEM, in order to fight the bad guys. Trace executes his fighting moves with Matrix-like style, except that he’s not in control of what he’s doing. The effect is comical, presumably intentionally so. But I could tell from the tittering of movie goers around me that they too were asking themselves if this was all a spoof.

Logan Marshall-Green is an interesting choice as lead. I like him. As he did in Prometheus, he plays an anti hero of sorts. Yes he’s out for justifiable revenge, but his methods are way outside the accepted moral compass. He plays out this internal debate in his conversations with STEM, and, like the aforementioned fight scenes, they are sometimes serious talks and sometimes funny. Again, this is undoubtedly intentional, but again, it gives the story a sense of taking the mickey.

In the end I felt robbed by this ambiguity. It’s entertaining enough, but it means you don’t find a truly gritty examination of A.I. ruling the roost, but nor do you find a true comic take on it either.

Shame, because the idea of an artificial intelligence becoming a threat by taking over a human body from the inside is a good sci fi idea. Upgrade is, on balance, worth a look. But this is not a whole hearted recommendation.

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