Spoilers might come alive and talk to you.
The idea of a chip that can re-establish communication between body parts with severed neurological pathways is not new. That being said, this low-budget sci-fi thriller has managed to outperform a lot of mainstream movies with bigger budgets by simply executing its very familiar premise a lot better with what it had. So yes, this is going to be recommended but be aware this is far more about the action than it is about the tech.
Director Leigh Whannell has cut his teeth on the horror genre as both actor, writer, director and producer and it shows in certain aspects of Upgrade. The film sets up the sweet life of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) and Asha Trace (Melanie Vallejo) in an initially idyllic future that we’re all guessing is not far behind. Grey has the dream job of restoring muscle cars for a living. He’s married to the love of his life and everything is perfect. They’d easily could step into a horror movie from here, and to be honest the film does feel like it wants to be that in parts.
It works a lot more like a revenge film. After some foreboding in which they learn about this new chip called STEM capable of incredible things from one of Grey’s clients, they ride way home on a self-driving car. We already can guess they’re going to end up in the wrong part of town, and victims of an aparent random attack. Grey survives, but he’s paralyzed from the neck down for life. Rough times are ahead and he’s just not happy with the police being unable to find the murderers of his wife. That’s when his former client, the eccentric Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) re-enters the frame with the proposition to give him back his life via a procedure that will set up the STEM chip inside his spine.
The chip does not grant him with super-strength or super-speed. What it gives him is, effortless, instant movements that actor Marshall-Green actually mimics in machine-like accuracy. Basically, it’s how a machine moves a limb, for which I have to applaud his physical acting here. Things get surreal when it turns that STEM can actually talk to him. I am so glad I didn’t knew about this (I did said spoilers when we started, people) because it was a welcome surprise. STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) with Grey’s permission, can take over and provide him with the most obvious benefit that computers have over humans: close-to-zero reflexes.
But just as the fun begins, the dark sides of STEM begin to show. The chip has no hesitation on killing a man. Morals is not on its programming. STEM has assessed the thread level of the people that came after Grey and it is trying to survive, believing they will come after him. There’s more to that, but I don’t want to give the whole thing away. It was also a good thing to learn that the killers, which seem to be special forces turned mercenaries, have their own secrets. They have cybernetic enhancements that include built-in firepower. Grey and STEM might be outgunned.
The action is very focused. There are times in which Grey has the advantage, and others where he’s over his head. Logan Marshall-Green often has to act as Grey from the neck up while STEM is handling business from the neck down and the way that he can illustrate emotional distress on his facial expression as the rest of his body is executing fight choreography is rather well done. The disconnection is believable with just a little of suspension of disbelief on your side. As the divide between Grey and STEM grows, we realize that Grey has lost the upper hand and things are going to start going south. Twists, some obvious and some not as much, are on the rise.
Highly recommended for great action, execution and a great performance by its lead. The story, as well as its twists and turns, will most likely feel familiar. It is more of a suspenseful thriller with a sci-fi setting than a sci-fi film. With highly well executed fight scenes and even a car chase, it doesn’t feel like you are watching a low budget film but rather a high-end made-for-cable episode. In the end, I believe that audiences don’t mind a plot they can recognize as long as it is well done. You might not be surprised but you will be entertained.
That will do for now.