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Review: "Upgrade" (2018)

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Movie poster for Upgrade, distributed in Korean markets and owned by Blumhouse.

Movie poster for Upgrade, distributed in Korean markets and owned by Blumhouse.


In the near future, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) rebuilds classic cars for wealthy technocrats who can afford his antiquated services. A car accident and subsequent attack by heavily armed thugs, however, leave him paralyzed and his wife dead. Frustrated by his physical incapacitation and the well-meaning but ineffective police, Grey takes a risky offer from one of his employers.

An advanced artificial intelligence called STEM is implanted inside Grey in the belief that it might repair the damage to his spinal cord, allowing him to regain the use of his limbs. It turns out STEM is capable of much more and is far more advanced than even its creator believed. Grey not only recovers but also begins to hear STEM as it offers him advice, seeking to help him find justice for the attack that crippled him and killed his wife. At first suspicious, Grey nonetheless takes the opportunity to understand what happened to him and why. As he and STEM follow the clues, though, they find themselves at odds with the police, STEM’s creator, freelance hackers, and similarly enhanced humans who believe they are the next step in directed evolution. Grey also begins to doubt how much control he really has over his own body as STEM learns and becomes more advanced.

Next Sunday A.D.

At its most basic, this is an action science-fiction revenge movie. The elevator pitch for Upgrade probably sounded like this: “It’s a cyberpunk version of The Crow, flavored with Ex Machina.” For a relatively low-budget movie with limited star power, Upgrade is quite the achievement. It is worth watching for no other reason than the top-notch action scenes. If a viewer doesn’t know going in that Upgrade is an action movie, then the sudden turn into it is as incredible and shocking to the audience as it is to Grey. Each action sequence is expertly done. The action is easy to follow with the scenes having been blocked and rehearsed as to come across smoothly. It might not reach the rarified air of John Wick or the latest Mission: Impossible, but it isn’t far behind, either.

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There Are Not Two “D’s” in This Upgrade

Underlying the amateur-detective plotline and the fantastic action sequences are several types of horror. The most obvious horror elements come through not only with the gore and graphic violence resulting from the action scenes but also with Grey’s reaction to it all. Logan Marshall-Green does a great job of selling the good and bad of his upgraded body and what STEM helps him achieve. He clearly expresses his elation at having the freedom that comes with a fully functional body. The scenes of him after the accident where he is forced back into an infantile state, relying on his mother and voice-commanded robots to take care of his every basic need come across as a grim blow to this man who has been self-reliant and suspicious of advanced technology. The joy he exudes when STEM allows him to walk and use his arms again feels believable. Similarly, he conveys a real sense of shock and terror at the effortless destruction his healed body can cause when he allows STEM to exert more control.

The Horror Aspect

All of these elements build to a variety of psychological horror and body horror in Upgrade. The psychological horror comes from the depression that accompanies Grey’s physical limitations following the attack. Grey also fears that he might be losing his mind when STEM starts talking to him. After all, he is hearing a voice in his head, and it is telling him to do things he might want to do but would ordinarily avoid. The body horror is most evident in the cyber augmentation of Grey and some antagonists, as there develops a question of whether they are human or have become something else. For Grey, in particular, he becomes increasingly concerned with what he can accomplish with STEM. At first just excited to be able to use his limbs again, he grows uneasy with the help STEM offers. Even as he becomes concerned he might be losing control of his body to an external force, he realizes he cannot reject STEM without also returning to a state of physical helplessness he loathes.

Aren’t You Cold?

On a related note, some viewers will think of STEM as a satanic character. Grey is in a vulnerable position, and the ability to have his body restored and find answers proves to be a temptation he cannot resist. Like the protagonist of many such cautionary tales, Grey accepts the help that is offered without realizing the consequences of his choices. He trades one form of dependency for another. From this perspective, Grey is flawed and tragic where STEM is predatory and manipulative. There is likely a comment here about nearly all contemporary technology, how it comes in the guise of making peoples’ lives easier but mostly serves to make its users dependent. Such concerns, however, remain more in the background of the film.

Overall, Upgrade is a good movie. The plot structure isn’t particularly original, and there are some twists toward the end that will rub some viewers the wrong way. As a science-fiction action movie, though, it deserves a lot of praise, and Logan Marshall-Green does a great job of making his character come alive.

© 2018 Seth Tomko

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