Leigh Whannell has set his vicious, stylish sci-fi pulp thriller Upgrade in a near future of self-driving cars and fully Alexa-ruled homes, telling a story of revenge and possession while wittily targeting contemporary anxieties. It asks, between its whip-fast head-splatters and face-knifings, Is something essentially human lost when we turn ourselves over to technology? In form and function, though, Upgrade is as committed to the pulp past as it is the tech dystopia to come. Teeming with abandoned buildings full of thugs to be dispatched, ruled over by shadow corporations and wicked artificial intelligence, Whannell's film plays like the smarter-than-you'd-think 2018 version of some 1988 kill-'em-all VHS cheapie.
But Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3) has upgraded the 20th century's gritty-city one-man-army cyborg thrillers with some killer twists. Rendered quadriplegic in the crash and attack that murdered his wife and motivated his heroism, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) regains control of his limbs once a reclusive billionaire inventor talks him into agreeing to have an experimental AI implant clipped to his spine. The first surprise: STEM, the upgrade, can drive Grey himself when Grey allows it to -- it's an efficient and pitiless dicer of us ol' meatbags. As Grey's body carves up the villains, Grey's face is aghast, disgusted, horrified -- and, of course, a little turned on.
STEM, it seems, has none of Grey's human concerns, so when Grey yields control of his body, he also releases it from his morality. Like us, he becomes an observer of the carnage that the movies have so often insisted is heroic. Whannell jolts Upgrade with something rarely seen in violent thrillers: ideas about violence.