Grey has a drop of blood hanging from his finger. He’s been repairing a vintage mustang, and caught his hand on some jagged metal underneath the car’s sleek orange hood. As Grey licks the drops of blood from his fingertip, we become immediately aware of what kind of man he is. Self-serving, manual, a foe of automation and a proponent of the belief that any machine should only be operated by humankind.
But as “Upgrade” proves, the autonomous manual life is not so easy. Set in a near future where the surveillance state is in full force but still faulty, where self-driving cars are readily available but not wholly mainstream, this sci-fi/horror hybrid is a movie with relative unknowns that fully embraces its B-level identity. It induces as many awes as eye-rolls, as many laughs as “holy shits.” It’s AI argument is rudimentary, but the “Matrix”-quality action makes up for “Upgrade’s” shortcomings.
Grey, played by Logan Marshall-Green, is a techno-phobe living with his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) who fully embraces the digital revolution. After meeting with Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), a younger, awkward version of “Silicon Valley’s” Gavin Belson, Grey and Asha get into a car accident, where four masked thugs murder Asha and paralyze Grey from the waist down. Trapped in a depressed state and a lifeless body, Grey is offered a chance to rehabilitate himself with the help of Eron’s pioneering tech known as STEM. One major spinal surgery later, Grey is in full “Six Million Dollar Man” mode, ready to karate chop his wife’s killers with the brute force of vigilante justice.
It’s an immensely silly concept but one that ultimately succeeds because writer and director Leigh Whannell doesn’t tread too much in futuristic happenings. Yes, there are self-driving cars and automated smoothie-machines in “Upgrade’s” era, but there are still mangy biker bars, dilapidated apartment buildings, and over-concerned AARP mothers who’ve been passed down the same beehive hairdo from their elders in the 60s. Whannell makes “Upgrade” feel in the here and now, confident that he doesn’t have to rely on the there and when to bring his story to life.
When Grey does encounter his wife’s killers, the action sequences intimately remind us of the bullet-time sequences from the first “Matrix” movie, reinforcing the vigor of every strike and blow. The cinematography is reminiscent of “Blade Runner 2049,” with scenes draped in neon hues of orange and purple. And the dialogue hearkens us back to a “Mad Men” or “King of the Hill” episode, with Grey delivering hilarious quips reminding his assaulters he is just not of this time.
But “Upgrade” does have shortcomings in its depictions of the future. The first 20 minutes of the film are like an outdated artificial exhibit at EPCOT, and the ending, while ambitious, still feels like it was a first draft inspiration, that Whannell came up with this first and then worked backwards to make it fit. At one point, one of Grey’s enemies sneezes tiny, knife-wielding robots into a victim’s nostril. Sure, nanobots are common elements in today’s science fiction, but nasal-powered ones feel a bit stuffy even for “Upgrade’s” taste.
With its relative cast of nobodies, some of whom don’t even have headshots on their IMDb pages, “Upgrade” initially seems like the kind of movie destined for an unannounced Netflix release. But Whannell manages to craft enough futuristic zest and intrigue to make it a worthy theatrical feature, even if its parts don’t add up to a meaningful whole.