Leigh Whannell, actor, filmmaker and half of the team behind torture-porn classic Saw, branches into techno-futuristic action-horror with the brutally deft Upgrade, starring Logan Marshall-Green. Take some Robocop, fold in John Wick, sprinkle on a bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey and season generously with fake blood, a wink and a nudge, and you get Upgrade, which imagines a not-so-distant future in which wearable tech has become a body-horror nightmare.

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Leigh Whannell, actor, filmmaker and half of the team behind torture-porn classic Saw, branches into techno-futuristic action-horror with the brutally deft Upgrade, starring Logan Marshall-Green. Take some Robocop, fold in John Wick, sprinkle on a bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey and season generously with fake blood, a wink and a nudge, and you get Upgrade, which imagines a not-so-distant future in which wearable tech has become a body-horror nightmare.

Our hero, Grey, is your average analog grease monkey, listening to soul music and tinkering with his muscle cars, while his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo) prefers the luxuries of sleek self-driving vehicles and smart homes, which give her that much more time to work at her tech company. One night, driving home from dropping off a vintage car to tech prodigy Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), the technological utopia proves fallible — and fatal. The couple’s self-driving car rams into a homeless encampment and Grey and Asha are held up and left for dead by a crew of uncommonly weaponized bandits. Grey survives, a quadriplegic, while Asha does not.

The mysterious Eron makes Grey an offer he can’t refuse. With a team of private doctors, Eron conducts a secret, unregulated surgery, implanting a tiny, roach-like widget, STEM, into Grey’s spine. STEM becomes the link between Grey’s brain and his malfunctioning body, allowing him to walk. And STEM, as Grey discovers, can talk. He’s the robotic voice in Grey’s head, the HAL inside of him, controlling his body. STEM becomes his partner in crime-solving, and his physical strength as they go after Asha’s killers, uncovering deeper and deeper conspiracies.

What makes Upgrade work are the tangible realities and fears it plays on. We all wear Fitbits. How long until criminals are getting functional guns implanted in their forearms? Alexa, Siri and their counterparts can be helpful, but how much presence should they have in our lives? Personal decisions? What if she turns on us?

Another crucial element is Marshall-Green’s performance. As pre-STEM Grey, he’s brooding and moody, an anti-tech crank. Printing pizzas? He’d rather make them. But desperate, grieving and newly jazzed up with his powers of STEM, he’s both in awe and bewildered. He begs STEM to show mercy to his victims as he bludgeons them, his hands out of his control, but he also gloats "you didn’t know I was a ninja" to the thugs he corners in scuzzy dive bar bathrooms.

His physical performance is what communicates the relationship between man and machine. He’s awkwardly upright and stiff, he doesn’t move in a way that’s "human," because what’s moving him isn’t. Whannell plays with film speed and uses incredibly innovative camerawork to underline the unreality of Grey’s artificially enhanced movement. At times, the camera seems rigged to his body, as we lurch along with him, and other times it pulls back to let us take in all of his whirling destruction.

Upgrade is a brutish, efficient and well-executed slice of cyberpunk action-horror with a silly streak. It tempers gratuitous and gory violence with a few laughs, drawing us in, then skewering our obsession with technology of the self. With present-day headlines about out-of-control self-driving cars and smart speakers acting autonomously, Upgrade couldn’t feel more timely. All the gadgets and gear just might strip us of our own autonomy.

— Tribune News Service