“Upgrade” is a compact sci-fi action B-movie that wants to be a hip little genre exercise but doesn’t have the chops (or maybe it’s just the imagination) to entirely pull it off. The film isn’t a dud — it “delivers the goods” in a certain reductive, baseline action-fanboy way. Yet “Upgrade” is the sort of movie that thinks it’s more ingenious than it is, starting with the premise, which is a semi-catchy, semi-stupido hoot in a way that the movie couldn’t have completely intended.
In a future landscape that looks a lot like today, except for the occasional advanced gizmo doodad (i.e., what the filmmakers had the budget for), an analog junkie name Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) — how old school is he? So old school that he refurbishes ’70s Pontiacs and listens to Howlin’ Wolf on vinyl — is riding with his corporate bread-winner wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), in their driverless luxury vehicle that resembles a speeding metal honeycomb. When the car crashes, they’re ambushed by a pack of muggers who murder Asha and brutally wound Grey, who wakes up to learn that he is now a quadriplegic.
For about the next 20 minutes of screen time, he of course turns into a miserable druggie wretch with Nothing To Live For. But Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), a young robot-limb entrepreneur with the sleek hair, steely eyes, and fascist space-cadet demeanor of an actor ordered up by a studio executive who said “Get me a Jared Leto type!,” offers to make Grey the subject of a bold experiment in rejuvenation, like the Six Million Dollar Man meets the decimated hero of “RoboCop.”
A device called STEM, which resembles a small metal roach, is surgically implanted in Grey’s spinal column. It’s a computer that reconnects his mind to his body, and also fuses with his body, so that Grey can become an invincible fighting machine, his limbs controlled by programming (at least, when he wants them to be) and the voice of STEM talking directly to him, inside his skull, in tones of gentle resolve that are clearly designed to remind you of HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey” (though he sounds like a HAL who just graduated from a Tony Robbins seminar).
“Upgrade” doesn’t try and pretend that it isn’t a derivative thriller. The writer-director, Leigh Whannell, a key member of the “Saw” and “Insidious” franchise teams (though this is only the second feature he’s directed, after “Insidious 3”), would probably be perfectly happy if you watched his movie and name-checked all the influences he’s vacuumed into it, from “The Hidden” to “Ex Machina” to “The Terminator.”
But here’s the hoot factor. When Grey is up and fighting, his limbs punching and chopping with relentlessly engineered precision, he’s supposed to be an astounding fantasy being, a human with a lethal weapon system inside him — a computer that’s at once his comrade and his enemy. But the pummeler we see is no different, really, than a thousand action heroes, from Jason Bourne to whoever Jason Statham is playing on VOD this week, who never make a wrong move and always defeat each foe with slashing invincibility. That Grey has a computer consciousness guiding his every action isn’t so much spectacular as redundant.
The fact that he stands ramrod straight, and that each of his moves is mathematically designed to be the most efficient one possible at that moment, goes back to an even earlier model of hand-to-hand combat perfection: the martial-arts genre. All we’re watching, really, is Bruce Lee on auto-pilot. At one point, Grey does something a bit “Saw”-like, breaking someone’s jaw by stretching it open until it’s a leering rictus. I might have welcomed more of that, since it’s at least colorful. Mostly, though, the unintentional joke of this parable of transformative “body horror” is that it’s just a routine ninja movie decorated with stray futurist trappings.
STEM the computer is more than a shadow killer. He also helps Grey re-run footage of the fatal mugging and zero in on clues that let him track down his wife’s killers. But couldn’t Grey have used an ordinary computer to do that? Who cares if it’s in his head?
As a vengeful action film, “Upgrade” is perfectly acceptable fodder. There’s a hint of video-game consciousness at work in its image of an old-fashioned hero — who Logan Marshall-Green makes sympathetic, if not all that distinctive — committing violence by learning to wield his own body as a kind of murderous avatar. But the film doesn’t develop or explore any of this; it’s just sort of there. Kind of like that voice in your head that says, “Look, another kick-ass killing. Cool. Exciting. Next.”