‘Upgrade’: a Sci-Fi Thriller that Makes Us Fear the Present

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The future is now, and it’s scary as shit. That’s the message of Upgrade, the science fiction crime thriller written and directed by Leigh Whannell. Despite some clunky plotting and stiff acting, Upgrade achieves what every halfway decent science fiction movie should attempt to accomplish: comment on the fucked-up times we live in.

Upgrade, set in a big city dystopia, tells the story of Grey Trace, a man who hates technology with Luddite zeal. Trace and his wife are brutally attacked. She’s killed and he wakes up in the hospital as a quadriplegic. Enter the tech geek/entrepreneur who implants a spider-like computer chip in Trace’s spine. This chip, codenamed Stem, not only gives Trace the ability to move and walk again, but also turns him into an ass-kicking ninja. That’s what Trace thinks, anyway. Stem emphatically tells Trace he’s not a ninja, though he can still kickass. Yes, Stem actually talks to Trace and also thinks for him. With permission, of course. It’s a fun conceit that gets at the core essence of Man: To kill or not to kill. That is the question.

Logan Marshall-Green stars as Trace and he plays the part well. Instead of turning Trace into an action-hero caricature straight out of a John Woo movie, Marshall-Green presents us with a grieving husband who is conflicted about tracking down his wife’s killers. He doesn’t want to commit savage acts of violence, but he does. Circumstances dictate he must. The brutal fight scenes are a satisfying orgasmic release for us in the audience yet so horrifying to Trace, he vomits afterwards. You never see this kind of moral complexity in a superhero movie, where whole cities are destroyed and thousands of people are killed without any emotional consequences. Marshall-Green’s portrayal of Trace reminds us a human being is at the center of Upgrade.

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Despite its low budget, there’s a lot more going on in Upgrade than just a tale of bloody revenge and violent B-movie thrills, though. Trace as a character is an anachronism, a retro-fantasy of white masculinity. His wife is a striving career woman seduced by all the wonders of the modern world whereas Trace prefers living in the past, drinking beers from bottles and working on old cars that have internal combustion engines with no digital components. He does shit with his hands, not his mind. Like Trump voters in coal country and the Rustbelt, progress and automation has left him behind. Trace’s frustration with modernity only grows worse when, confined to a wheelchair, he must grovel before the detective assigned to his case — a smart black woman. Though never explicitly stated, this is the ultimate indignity. The climax to their relationship should scare the crap out of everyone concerned about race relations and gender equality. With Trace, we see a blue collar white man who is literally spineless until technology takes over and controls how he thinks and acts. It’s the perfect metaphor for twenty-first century America.

That’s because Upgrade deftly shows that all our gizmos and apps have paralyzed us to the point of stupidity. We rely on technology to function the same way Grey Trace relies on Stem to move. Without Waze and Google Maps, we are lost. Without the internet or a good WiFi connection, we can’t even listen to music anymore. Computers drive our cars, prepare our food, control our homes, and our friendships. We expect technology to solve our crimes, and when it doesn’t, we’re disappointed. What’s the point of living in a surveillance state if all those eyes in the sky can’t solve the murder of your wife?

As Upgrade makes clear, technology is that attractive whore Man desperately wants to fuck, but it ends up fucking us instead. We’ve become slaves to electronic gadgets. While set in the near future, Upgrade speaks to the present. We don’t need talking computer chips implanted into our spines to control us. We already have smart phones and Siri, Alexa, and Google’s creepy new A.I. assistant Duplex thinking for us, anticipating our every need and desire. Social media empires like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat have become so pervasive in our lives they’re changing democracy and also the way our brains work.

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The most compelling aspect of Upgrade is the presentation of this technological overreach. As with all classic sci-fi cautionary tales, Upgrade dramatizes everyone’s darkest fear: becoming obsolete. Whether it’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Ex Machina (2014), we dread our creations turning on us, then replacing us. We’re terrified of technology making us irrelevant, individually and collectively. Once Artificial Intelligence takes over, robots will think of humans the way cows think of ants. Being rendered obsolete is a frightening concept for a species who once thought the universe actually revolved around them. This is the conceit of every alien invasion movie: that humans must fight to stave off extinction, and to remain the superior intellect in the universe. But those are battles fought against external threats. Upgrade gives us the horror of self-inflicted obsolescence, a vision which is far more chilling.

Films like Blade Runner (1982), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and The Matrix (1999) all tell stories of a future where the human race becomes irrelevant. But they were also big budget productions and thus, the dynamics of Hollywood dictated they end with rays of hope. Not so with Upgrade. It’s low budget gives the film the freedom to be dark, pessimistic, and nihilistic to a fault. In this respect, Upgrade does not disappoint.

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