Review of Upgrade (2018)

Moving picture, 100 minutes

Seen in 2020.

An auto mechanic hits a low point. He’s paralyzed from the neck down, he resents the creeping digitalization of society that he must now rely on, and the police are getting nowhere investigating the murder of his wife after someone hacked her car.

Though this movie is flavoured like the contemporary superhero cycle, it’s still as if somebody contracted Gaspar Noé to direct a low-budget cyberpunk thriller and he added his usual nihilistic horror. The worldbuilding is patterned after William Gibson’s extrapolations, with the main character named Grey Trace, which in itself is almost a parody of Gibson. The plot is patterned after ’70s and ’80s crime-revenge vigilante flicks: The dubious avenger out of Death Wish (1974) aided by a yet-more dubious, literally corporate machine, like Robocop (1987). The machine comes on a through-hole-mounted “chip”, a throwback to the electronics of the same era; it looks nothing like the Neuralink puck of 2020. Other implants shown in the film are similarly unrealistic.

The action has too many fast cuts but isn’t boring, incorporating the visual tricks of The Matrix (1999) plus some camera roll, which is ultimately overused. The script, too, ultimately goes to excess. The final two twists (not Stem going HAL but Stem wanting a human body and Grey being sent to a farm upstate while Stem inexplicably says goodbye to Cortez) don’t make sense, but almost every step along the way is smarter than normal 2018 SF screenwriting, including Altered Carbon (2018). It’s not Ghost in the Shell (1995), neither in visuals nor in ideas, but it sometimes touches the same nerve and steers clear of mind-body dualism among other pitfalls, while building an effective metaphor for the diffusion of responsibility in contemporary human-machine relationships, including those of the US War on Terror.

moving picture fiction cyberpunk