Upgrade (2018)

Often, when I prattle on about my deep love of Evil Technology luddite genre films, I tend to cite recent examples like Unfriended, Nerve, and #horror as the defining works of the canon. There are plenty of pre-Internet Era luddite thrillers I love just as deeply, however; they just already have established cults that don’t need the awareness boost. Films like Hardware & Videodrome have, even if only through the passage of time, already earned passionate fanbases that haven’t caught up to more recent, less prestigious works like, say, the Snapchat filter horror film Truth or Dare. The recent Blumhouse sci-fi thriller Upgrade seems to be transcending that limitation, instantly earning a fiercely dedicated fanbase that isn’t typically afforded tech-obsessed genre films. It’s highly doubtful Upgrade will ever be as culturally iconic as a classic example like The Matrix or The Terminator, but it is bypassing the long road to genre fans’ respect suffered by just-as-deserving works like Unfriended. This might be partly due to its avoidance of exploring the evils of the Internet specifically, since that topic is often dismissed as being too frivolous or too silly to justify a feature length movie (as if a movie could ever be too silly). Instead, Upgrade largely exploits & satirizes luddite fears of self-driving, automated technology. It also, smartly, buries that satire under the surface of a comedic, hyperviolent, cheap-thrills action film that plays much dumber at face value that it actual is in its core cultural commentary. What I’m saying is that that Upgrade is the RoboCop of the 2010s (not to be confused with RoboCop [2014]), an instant genre-fan favorite because it channels the thrills & tone of an undeniable classic without directly copying it.

Paul Verhoeven’s sly satire of police privatization, Reagan Era fascism, and governmental control over personal autonomy is what makes RoboCop an enduring classic, not necessarily its over-the-top violence & (admittedly great) character design. Plot-wise, Upgrade only superficially resembles that time-tested work, touching on themes of police surveillance & the melding of the human body with creepy future-tech only in passing. Its own satirical target is the discomfort people feel with the increasing presence of self-automated technology of “smart” domestic appliances, self-driving cars, and predictive A.I. This is a violent action film about a self-driving body, where the only freedom of choice presented is how much permission is allowed a human body’s implanted operating system to act as its own discretion. And, of course, even that freedom is chipped away. It specifically focuses on the challenge automated technology presents to macho men who long for a now-extinct world that values their brute strength & ability to achieve labor-intensive tasks with their own hands. This very real, very macho anxiety of approaching obsoletion at the hands of future-tech is shown in gloriously over-the-top extreme, where a once-mighty macho man now needs a computer’s help to even move a single muscle. Upgrade has an entirely different plot & satirical target than RoboCop, but the way it buries that social commentary under a thick layer of popcorn movie Fun that can be just as easily read at face value is very much classic Verhoeven. It’s a subversive, playing-both-sides tone that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off without tipping your hand, which is what makes the movie so instantly recognizable as a modern genre classic.

In a near-future dystopia, a classic macho man mechanic bristles at his wife’s love of & reliance on self-automated tech, nostalgic for a world where his hands-on skills were more useful. This anxiety is only made more extreme when his motor skills are taken away from him completely in a senseless act of violence that destroys his family & leaves him physically crippled. A fey tech-bro offers him the promise of a better future through an advanced version of the automated technology that made him so uncomfortable to begin with, affording him a new chance at “self” sufficiency by implanting a “new & better brain” (a biotech computer chip) in his body. Mimicking the humorously calm, sinister tones of HAL 9000, this new operating system, STEM, reinvigorates the fallen mechanic to enact revenge on the brutes who ruined his life. The problem is that he’s not particularly skilled at revenge. Even with his motor functions fully restored, he struggles to best the goons he hunts into physical confrontations, as they’re more skilled in brutal violence. He then must overcome his macho pride and allow STEM to take over as the driver of his own body, closing his eyes as the computer inside him enacts horrific atrocities that make him want to puke. From there, Upgrade is a race to see if the revenge mission can be completed before police-drone surveillance blows its cover completely. Honestly, the resolution of that plot is not nearly as compelling as the over-the-top violence & satirical comedy that drives it. As gore-soaked & boneheaded as the film’s action can frequently be, the overall tone is so cartoonish (especially in the internal arguments with STEM) that Upgrade effectively plays like an action comedy. It’s an indulgence in grotesque slapstick that hints that maybe its hero’s macho paranoia shouldn’t be taken as seriously as you might expect in a more standard thriller. It’s easy to imagine a straight-faced Hollywood version of Upgrade that plays this same self-automation anxiety for genuine tension (presumably starring Liam Neeson) but it’s difficult to imagine that version being half as fun or worthwhile.

A longtime collaborator with modern horror mainstay James Wan, Upgrade director Leigh Whannell impressed me once before with his willingness to go over the top in the evil doll horror Dead Silence. Just like how that bonkers horror frivolity transcended its limited means by feeling like two dozen Charles Band scripts crammed into one monstrosity, Upgrade is endearing in the way it overloads itself with ideas. Neon lights, body-mounted cameras, and intense practical gore effects complicate the humor of the film’s action sequences. Throwaway potshots at VR gaming, police drones, and erudite tech bros threaten to distract from the film’s central satirical target: macho men’s fear of approaching obsoletion through automated tech. This is the exact overstuffed, go-for-broke dual indulgence in absurdity & craft that I love to see in my genre films. Its bifurcated nature as both a gory action comedy spectacle and a subversive act of cultural commentary is indicative of the film’s “Have your cake and eat it too” attitude at large, something that was much more common in high profile genre films back when Paul Verhoeven was making mainstream hits that played a lot dumber on the surface than they truly were. Upgrade isn’t one of my precious Evil Internet horror cheapies that needs to be championed for people to see its value (I may need to conserve that energy for the upcoming Unfriended 2: Dark Web anyway). Its approach to luddite genre filmmaking is more instantly recognizable as a crowd-pleaser, with all its cultural satire buried under the surface of a hyperviolent action comedy. It’s the modern RoboCop in that way, as opposed to the more common approach of remaking & reshaping the original film’s exact plot through updated tech. This is more of a spiritual descendant than a carbon copy, something that’s much more difficult to achieve.

-Brandon Ledet

18 thoughts on “Upgrade (2018)

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