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

Eric Coyote
5 min readJun 9, 2018

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.

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…

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Eric Coyote

Filmmaker Eric Coyote earned his Master‘s degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.