Before he becomes a souped-up killing machine in the sleek dystopian thriller "Upgrade," Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a stubbornly analog hero in an overwhelmingly digital world. A grizzled auto mechanic, Grey is first shown working contentedly in his garage, tinkering under the hood of a vintage automobile while Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightnin'" plays in the background.
The year could be 2018, or 1978. But then Grey steps into his chic modernist fortress of a house and it's clear we're in a not-so-distant future, where drone cameras scan the horizon, every tabletop is a touch-screen and a Siri-esque voice greets you as you walk in the door.
With his love of engine grease and manual labor, Grey looks conspicuously out of place in this high-tech environment, unlike his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), a corporate bigwig who rides around town in a self-driving car. But if these early scenes play like an Elon Musk wet dream, they soon morph into the stuff of nightmares: A mysterious e-bug hijacks Asha's car and strands husband and wife in an ugly part of town, where they are swiftly ambushed by thugs who leave Asha dead and Grey paralyzed from the neck down.
End of story? Not quite. A powerful tech entrepreneur (Harrison Gilbertson) offers to help Grey walk again by having a computer chip called Stem implanted in his spine -- a risky, still-untested proposition that must remain utterly top-secret. But this potentially groundbreaking experiment in artificial intelligence does far more than simply restore and enhance Grey's physical mobility.
Voiced by the actor Simon Maiden, Stem speaks in flat, HAL 9000-inflected tones that only Grey (and the audience) can hear. Stem feeds Grey intel that allows him to stay one step ahead of his enemies. And when granted permission, Stem assumes full control of Grey's body and turns him into an invincible, hyper-agile assassin, allowing him to personally settle the score with the men who ruined his life.
Written and directed by the Australian-born Leigh Whannell, "Upgrade" is a smooth, skillful if obvious-minded reworking of elements from "Frankenstein," the "Terminator" movies, "Death Wish," the collected works of Philip K. Dick and outlandish be-your-best-self thrillers like "Lucy" and "Limitless." You might also think of it as an especially gory feature-length episode of "Black Mirror," with its striking, economical approach to world building and its paranoid interrogations of a technology state run amok -- all held together by action sequences executed with a certain nasty, nihilistic virtuosity.
There's an unmistakable pleasure in seeing Grey go in for the kill, and not just because of his pinpoint-precise martial-arts moves and creative use of kitchen crockery. A dead ringer for Tom Hardy, minus the louche swagger, Marshall-Green gives a performance as expressive emotionally as it is physically; his Grey seems genuinely startled, even horrified, by his body's newfound capabilities. His horror mounts -- but so too does his complicity -- as he realizes that Stem has effectively turned him into an avatar, the primary player in a head-spinningly elaborate game that may be bigger and more sinister than just one man's revenge.
Grey's reluctant-killer mode lends the picture some welcome flourishes of ghoulish comedy, plus a measure of human intelligence to counterbalance the artificial kind. It also keeps the character grounded even as he ventures further into a shadowy underworld populated by renegade hackers, hopeless virtual-reality addicts and various baddies who have undergone some drastic bodily upgrades of their own (surgically embedded automatic firearms and the like), nudging the material toward full-bore body horror.
The subtlety of Marshall-Green's performance isn't always matched elsewhere. The dialogue is especially tin-eared in the early scenes, laying down themes and plot points with a trowel, and the story ultimately sinks into the kind of free-floating technophobia that gives you a good scare in the moment, but leaves you with little to think about afterward. The mere fact that someone saw fit to bestow the name "Grey Trace" on a character with a trackable brain implant tells you more or less what you're in for.
But if "Upgrade" ultimately plays like a genre exercise, it's certainly a taut, engrossing one. The striking quality of the visual design never overpowers the story's rough-and-ready momentum; apart from the occasional glimpse of an otherworldly skyline, much of the movie unfolds in seedy bars, derelict apartment buildings and other backdrops that seem impervious to technological transformation. Even when your brain rejects some of the plot's more preposterous formulations, it's hard to resist the sensory allure of the movie's acrobatic camera moves, its dark neon-noir palette and its moody Jed Palmer score.
The triumph of craft and sensation over the forces of rationality and reason is of course an axiom of the horror genre, and Whannell, a creative force behind the "Saw" and "Insidious" movies, is nothing if not a seasoned scare-monger. (A longtime writer, actor and producer, he made his directing debut with 2015's "Insidious: Chapter 3.") "Upgrade" marks the filmmaker's latest collaboration with prolific producer Jason Blum, which may explain the casting of Betty Gabriel, who appeared in last year's Blum-produced hit "Get Out," in the supporting role of a scrupulous police detective. Well, that and the fact that Gabriel is a superb performer, someone who is clearly engineering her own career upgrade, one well-executed shocker at a time.
Rating: R, for strong violence, grisly images and language
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: In general release
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