Leigh Whannell’s low-budget horror feature Upgrade, now playing in general release, reminds me of the goofy genre mash-ups made by Brian De Palma in the 1960s and ’70s (Hi, Mom!, Phantom of the Paradise) and Takashi Miike in the 1990s and the aughts (Fudoh: The New Generation, The Happiness of the Katakuris). Whannell steals from so many different movies—and does it so cheerfully—that Upgrade stops feeling derivative and starts looking like a collage, with the recycled elements forming a new sensibility. Like the De Palma and Miike films, this one takes place in a self-aware cinematic world where taboos don’t exist and anything is possible, the writer-director hurling out narrative developments and sci-fi conceits.
The film takes place in an unspecified future era outside an unidentified first-world city, and the lack of a definite setting feels appropriate, suggesting that Upgrade belongs solely to the movies. Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), a 20th-century nostalgist, makes a living fixing up old cars—i.e., ones that don’t drive themselves. He spends most of his time at home, while his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), works at a tech company that makes robotic limbs for wounded veterans. These bits of exposition evoke both David Cronenberg’s 1999 fantasy eXistenZ (in the wooded setting and the theme of digital technology fusing with human body parts) and Spike Jonze’s 2013 romance Her (in characterizing the future through longing for the past). These points of reference become more pronounced as Upgrade proceeds, even as Whannell throws in aspects of Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974), Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), George Romero’s Monkey Shines (1988), and Carl Reiner’s All of Me (1984).
Hired to fix a car for a reclusive software designer named Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), Grey takes Asha with him to meet the designer in his top-secret underground studio. (Felicity Abbott’s production design conveys a sense of mystery and futurism with minimal means.) Keen, shown working on some mysterious project, is essentially Grey’s opposite, obsessed with the future whereas Grey is committed to preserving the past. Their meeting is awkward, and the couple depart in their self-driving car. In a frightening twist, the car gets hacked and soon the couple find themselves in an industrial corridor where thugs lie in wait. They kill Asha and shoot Grey in the spine, leaving him quadriplegic.
Having learned of Grey’s accident, Keen offers to implant a computer chip in Grey’s spine that can take control of his motor functions. Grey agrees, only to discover after the surgery that the computer chip, called Stem, is also artificially intelligent. Stem, which talks to Grey in a soothing monotone reminiscent of the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, uses surveillance technology to locate the men who killed Grey’s wife; when Grey confronts them, it uses a predictive algorithm to anticipate the assailants’ moves and manipulates Grey’s limbs as if he were a Swiss Army knife, laying waste to his attackers in a comically exacting manner. The ease with which Whannell navigates the pile-up of ideas can be breathtaking—Upgrade may be the first sci-fi revenge buddy comedy.
The fight scenes in Upgrade suggest someone kicking ass at a video game such as Grand Theft Auto, the choreographed violence so precise that it becomes hypnotic and a little eerie. And for a while, the murders provide good, amoral fun—because a computer chip is doing all the work, Grey can remain a sympathetic, even pitiable hero. Yet like Monkey Shines, which dealt with a quadriplegic man and his homicidal service animal, the film asks whether the hero can really be innocent of murders committed by an entity with whom he shares a symbiotic relationship. One rarely finds such moral ambiguity in a popcorn movie. Whannell also mines his premise for topical commentary: Stem turning Grey into a killing machine is only a satirical exaggeration of how the Internet can bring out the worst in people.
Upgrade‘s smooth turn into intellectual provocation may be the most surprising thing about it. (By comparison, the twist ending—stolen from the 1970 cult classic Colossus: The Forbin Project—feels somewhat forced.) Whannell, in throwing so many different ideas at the wall, finally comes across one that sticks. But even though he seems to arrive at his big ideas haphazardly, Whannell sees them through. Here’s a filmmaker who doesn’t just evoke other movies but also seems to have learned from them. v