Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade is what happens when you mix together The Matrix, the Terminator series, pretty much any of sci-fi story involving AI, and a splash of Donna Haraway’s “The Cyborg Manifesto”.
The film takes place at some point in the future, and focuses on Grey, who has become a paraplegic after a car accident and an attack. He is implanted with a chip that gives him the ability to use his limbs again. This is especially ironic given that Grey is someone who prizes the human effort put into manual labor. We know this because he was formerly a car mechanic who specialized in fixing old cars that, unlike most of the cars in this future world, still require a person to drive them. That Grey now requires the use of AI to even function as a fully-fledged human being is slightly tragic.
The chip, known as STEM, is not simply a passive machine. Once it starts talking to and interacting with Grey, we begin to understand how much it is capable of. As it turns out, Grey can give complete control to STEM, allowing it to completely take over his motor functions. This leads to some truly innovative action sequences. The action was shot and choreographed in a super-imaginative way, one that emphasized the cold precision and robotic nature of the chip while simultaneously showcasing the humor and absurdity through Grey’s reactions. The violence also allows the story to progress in a specific way, as Grey is forced to examine his own morality after his brutal actions. He becomes more and more desensitized to it as the film goes on.
We are forced to ask questions about control and what it truly means to be human. Does having some kind of technological enhancement make us less human? More than human? At what point do we become cyborgs? Technology, no matter how simple and benign, has always helped us to expand and enhance our own capabilities. Perhaps implanting it in our bodies and allowing it to enhance our physical movement is the next step.
The film follows the standard path of most films dealing with this subject matter: the characters are in a futuristic society where technology is advancing incredibly quickly and AI is all around them. Of course, the technology ends up advancing too far in this case. We love creating stories about the inevitable downfall of humankind because of our own technological overreaches, whether as a forewarning or just as pure horror. What is different and interesting about Upgrade, though, is the way it shows this happening. Here, STEM is willing to assist Grey in his quest for revenge, aiding him, and even pushing him, closer to his goal with the question being whether STEM is doing this out of robotic subservience or for a higher, more malicious purpose.
Overall, Upgrade is a thoroughly entertaining and thoughtful movie about the consequences of relying too heavily on technology. In our increasingly technology-driven world, it has a very relevant message and warning. It is definitely worth checking out-even if just for the action scenes.
A previous version of this article was published in 2018 and can be read at dcstuntcoalition.org.