For many cinephiles, the first genre that consistently pulls you into the darkness of the neighborhood movie theater is science fiction. It is safe to assume that ten-year-old members of the audience are attending because of the textured subplots or compelling dramatic performance. We went to have fun and to have our imagination challenged. We sought adventure as the hero soared through the vastness of outer space or fought powerful monsters that threatened the existence of humanity. Unavoidably, the nature of the antagonist reveals a prevalent concern of society. From electricity in the late nineteenth century through atomic power in the fifties and mastery over genetics at the start of the twenty-first century, inevitably the latest scientific advancements manifests as a two-edged sword, the potential most popular o greatly benefits the world or provide the means to destroy it. Currently, the greatest hope for the future and fear of annihilation, the singularity, the term can refer to many things, a myriad but the pertinent usage is the point when artificial technology overtake us biological units. The theme is robust, providing a myriad of variations to ensure a continuing source of entertainment. At first, the film under consideration initially didn’t seem to fit the criteria. It was a closer fit to the modernization of cybernetics, such as ‘The Bionic Man.’ The connection to the Singularity only becomes obvious after firmly establishing the story This is the cumulation of tight writing, imaginative direction, and nuanced performances.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a stay at home husband nominally working as a mechanic specializing in high-end vehicle restorations. His wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), a research scientist for Cobalt, one of the companies contributing to human-computer cyborg augmentations. A prospective client approached Greg, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), the technology innovative genius/billionaire, owner, and founder of rival tech innovator, Vessel. The irony for Grey is that he is a technophobe, distrustful of the overwhelming proliferation of technology. Regrettably, since his wife and his new client are both involved with the latest innovations, Grey can’t escape its control. Grey agrees to evaluate the project’s feasibility. Eron invites Grey and Asha to his home to show off his latest invention, AI chip called STEM that can serve as an auxiliary brain. On their way back home their self-driving car malfunctions. It takes them to a disreputable part of town near an encampment of homeless people. A group of four punks immediately attacks them. The resulting scuffle left Asha dead, shot in the chest and Grey shot in the neck leaving him a person with quadriplegia, paralyzed from the neck down. As a man accustomed to working with his hands and being active, so the emotional impact was in many respects greater than the physical incapacitation. This hit on a personal level having survived a similar disability.
Grey has a difficult time adjusting to life in a wheelchair even with his mother, Pamela (Linda Cropper), moving in to assist. His emotional and physiological status is further degrading the unresolved issues concerning his wife’s murder including the inability of the police investigator, Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) to determine the identity of the assailants. His resulting spatial down into depression leading to a suicide attempt. He receives a visit from Eron who offers him a way to regain his life by implanting STEM in his spine. After initial resistance, he agrees. The chip is still experimental and not approved for human trails, so Eron has Frey sign a non-disclosure form. He recovery is phenomenal, far faster than anyone could have expected as he begins to investigate his wife’s murder on his own using his regained mobility. His covert inquires border on the illegal, so he conceals his recovery from the police, especially Det. Cortez. During a particularly harrowing incident, Grey discovers the STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden), can speak, albeit only heard in his mind. STEM is also able to take control, oh Grey’s body overriding his systems. This makes Grey more agile, stronger and faster than normal. This aspect of the story might sound familiar to the more seasoned film aficionados. ‘The Terminal Man (1974)’ was a film based on the novel of the same name by science fiction illusionary, Michael Crichton. The premise had a man suffering from extreme technophobia is implanted with a computer chip to save his life. Arguably, this was among the first cybernetic movie and possibly a precursor to the Singularity. That movie had been a favorite of mine since I saw it during its theatrical release. Watching a familiar theme brought into the twenty-first century was fascinating.
It has been over forty years since ‘Terminal Man,’ and there has been an unimaginable amount of technological progress. That year was a decade before something as currently outdated as a VCR became popular. There were substantial changes in the art form of cinema. It is far more fierce than permissible back in the early days of the MPAA rating system. The screenwriter/director for ‘Upgrade, Leigh Whannell, was instrumental in some of those changes. He was the co-creator of the infamous ‘Saw’ franchise, considered by many to be the official start of torture porn horror although there are admittedly vicious scenes of violence here. Mr. Whannell demonstrates great restraint in not employing brutality solely for shock value. The principal narrative style and underlying genre remain a psychological thriller. There is a body count, often through severe mayhem, but the underlying impetus is always the emotional character arch experienced by Grey and the profound psychological charges he id=s forced to face and ultimately overcome. There is a strong reliance on the classic ‘heroes’ journey as scribed by Joseph Campbell in works such as ‘The Power of Myth. Grey undertakes a quest for vengeance and justice surviving a trial of pain and torment. By surviving he was able to master newly obtained abilities and sensibilities to achieve his goal and master his life.
Hopefully, Mr. Whannell will continue this paradigm change and focus his abilities on telling engaging, entertaining stories rather than attempting to break records for most stage blood used in a movie. Fans of torture porn horror agree that he possessed a definite understanding of the requisite components of the genre. It is reassuring that he was readily able to shift gears to create a psychological thriller of this quality. The several gruesome scenes contributed to the graphic scenes contributed to the realism, helping the viewer to fully understand the hellish circumstances Grey plunged into through no fault of his own. The heroic journey archetype provides a vehicle for Grey’s character arch as he survives long enough to master his new reality by creating a type of symbiotic relationship with STEM, I look forward to watching this filmmaker as he develops this aspect of his talents.