Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Tech-dependent cyborgs, an artificial-intelligence nerve implant that turns you into a ninja and a protagonist who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tom Hardy: “Upgrade” has all the elements of an excellent sci-fi action thriller, and you can just tell it’s going to be a classic someday.
When Grey Trace, the film’s discount Tom Hardy, loses his wife and the use of all four of his limbs early on, his pain becomes the ammunition that sets him on a revenge-fueled hunt for answers, made possible when an advanced robotic implant called STEM brings his nerves back online. Before I saw the movie, “Upgrade” reminded me of a Russian-American film I’d watched back in 2015, a first-person action thriller called “Hardcore Henry,” in which the main character is an amnesiac cyborg trying to save his wife from mercenaries. I’ve praised “Hardcore Henry” for its ingenious filming techniques and general cyborgian coolness but criticized it for its excessive and disruptive violence and gore. “Upgrade” gave me the experience that I’d so desperately wanted from “Hardcore Henry” — a fast-paced cyborg film with an engaging action story that doesn’t go overboard with the grisly details.
Of course, I also have to rave about the fun techno gimmicks this movie shows off: guns for hands, contact lenses that can transmit visual data to colleagues, virtual reality worlds that can be lived in for weeks at a time and killer nanobots dispersed through a sneeze. Not to mention the vaguely parasitic AI with the ability to speak inside your head and seize all of your motor functions. There are also plenty of subtle, near future-y details, such as self-driving cars and automated homes adapted for the severely disabled, that really bring the world of “Upgrade” to life.
I love the characters in this movie, from the eccentric young tech mogul with zero social skills to the genderless hacker who hates to be put into a binary box. Even the protagonist’s wife, Asha (who was only really in the movie for a couple of minutes), seems like a three-dimensional character with interests, a job and a life of her own. But despite my acclaim for the supporting cast, I’m mainly interested in our protagonist, the formerly quadriplegic cyborg with the auxiliary brain. He’s a hands-on man in a hands-free world, a technophobe who prefers the old fashioned, forced to become dependent on technology to survive. His personality effectively contrasts the coldness of STEM’s machinery. Watching a main character who can’t stomach murder pair up with a machine with a tendency for overkill made for some very interesting fight scenes. This pairing resulted in an action protagonist with an attitude totally separate from the way that he fights. Grey is the heart and soul of the team — the body, the motivation — whereas STEM is the brains and the talent. It’s definitely a little bit sinister watching them work together for most of the movie, while STEM could easily take over at any moment and just do the whole job himself.
“Upgrade” explores the idea of cyborgs as separate from humans, something superior and scary. The more surface-level instance of this would be the movie’s primary antagonists, which seem to be heavily weaponized cyborgs who believe themselves to be the superior race. While Grey fights these cyborgs, he has to come to accept that he relies on similar technology to survive. But although his access to his muscles comes through cybernetics, this new technology is not quite integrated into his system. Visually and emotionally, STEM is always noticeably separate from Grey. Whenever STEM takes over (often when he makes violent choices during an action sequence), the camera shifts robotically to a Dutch angle as if to note that something “other” is in charge. So once STEM manages to get off the grid and achieve autonomy, it’s a little chilling. Not only has Grey lost control of his body, but his willpower is not strong enough to resist. STEM assures him, “You have a fragile human mind. If you push against me, it will break.”
I’ve seen “Upgrade” multiple times now, and I certainly plan to watch it again. Even though it takes a full 30 minutes for the plot to kick in, the exposition is engaging, and the subsequent action scenes are gripping to watch. The movie is intense, but not overly gory, and the plot is thought provoking to be sure. Even if you’re not normally one for sci-fi, I’d recommend this film to anyone who likes a good action flick (and if you ever find yourself talking to me for more than five minutes, I probably will).