In the near future, screens and machines seamlessly integrate into, well, everything. Smart cars, smart homes, smart drones, smart … people. Rare is the human—at least, humans on the upper end of the economic spectrum—who doesn’t have some sort of cybernetic “upgrade.”
But not Grey Trace.
Grey’s an analog man in a digital world. He spends his days working on old cars, restoring them for well-heeled customers. Grey doesn’t like computers. Doesn’t trust ’em. Doesn’t want to have anything to do with ’em.
Grey’s wife, Asha, doesn’t get it. She mocks his mechanical obsession, as Grey tinkers with a black ’77 Pontiac Trans Am. He’s delivering that particular carbureted masterpiece to a young tech titan named Eron. And when he and Asha drop the car off for him, Eron introduces them to his latest invention: Stem.
Despite Stem’s diminutive size—it appears to be little more than a microchip, really—Eron says Stem can accomplish almost anything better than humans can. “It’s a new, better brain,” Eron brags.
“I look at that thing and see 10 guys in the unemployment line,” Grey retorts. He has no interest in “widgets” that, he says, can “take down the world.”
He has no interest, that is, until his wife’s self-driving car crashes on the way home. And instead of police or fire trucks or an ambulance arriving on the scene, they’re soon greeted by a gang of murderous thugs. Their leader coolly dispatches Asha with a single gunshot to the chest. As for Grey, he’s left for dead after being shot in the neck.
Grey survives, albeit as a quadriplegic adjusting to a new life. He once spent his days working with his hands. Now a voice-activated robotic assistant serves Grey’s every need, its steel “hands” replacing the human ones that don’t work anymore.
Grey mourns the loss of his wife, his mobility, his dexterity. But most of all, Grey longs for justice. And that’s something the investigator working his case, a woman named Cortez, seems unlikely to give him.
Then Eron shows up again with an offer. Stem, he promises, can “bridge the gap between brain and limbs.” It can restore the life that’s been taken from Grey, Eron insists.
Grey’s not interested. “Here’s the thing, kid: I’m not looking to restart my life. I’m looking for the off switch.”
“Computers … can’t bring [Asha] back, Grey,” Eron counters. “But they just might be able to bring you back. What would she want?”
So Grey relents, agreeing to let Eron’s doctors “install” Stem in his spine. It does everything that Eron had promised … and much, much more.
Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
In many ways, Grey’s a pretty stand-up guy. He loves his wife. He works hard. He’s content devoting himself to his old-school mechanical passions.
And once Asha is murdered, he understandably wants to see her killers held to account. He tells Cortez that he’ll do anything he can to aid the investigation, though he’s quick to admit that he probably won’t be much help, given his disability. Cortez, for her part, is a determined, conscientious investigator, even though her meager leads on the case don’t take her very far.
As Grey adjust to his life as a quadriplegic, his mother, Pam, does her best to help him.
Stem, it turns out, is indeed a miraculous “upgrade” to Grey’s broken body. But the technology installed in his neck does far more than merely restore his physical mobility. Stem is actually an artificially intelligent personality that speaks to Grey, telling him what he should do in certain situations and giving him access to a wealth of information he never would have known.
Someone could potentially see those abilities as benefits, up to a point. The movie critiques, however, how we often use this technology—especially in the extreme case of Stem’s fusion into Grey’s body, mind and will.
We’ve become conditioned, societally, to embrace new forms of technological communication and enhancements. An upgrade is almost always seen as a good thing. But by the time the credits roll, the film asks us to consider whether our increasingly immersive dependence on technology really is a good thing. It also ponders the addictive nature of virtual reality, twice commenting on the powerful draw of an immersive VR world by saying, “A fake world is a lot less painful than a real one.”
The film suggests—and none too subtly—that technological advances meant to help us may in fact make us unhealthily dependent upon them. So much so that it becomes harder to discern who’s really in control: the humans or the AI technology the characters here have created.
Grey pays a hacker in cash, currency she’s apparently never seen before. She looks at a bill quizzically and says, “They really do say God on them.”
Asha wears a cleavage-revealing blouse. Grey jokes about taking her pants off. She and Grey begin to make out in a self-driving car, apparently with the intent of going further than that, when the car begins behaving erratically.
Early in the film, we see Grey and Asha’s accident, which sends Grey colliding throughout the car’s cabin. They crawl out, only to find a gang of thugs descending upon them. Asha’s shot in the chest (we see her bloody wound), while Grey’s shot in the neck (which is also a gory mess).
While Grey is still paralyzed, he apparently tries to commit suicide by asking his robot helper to repeatedly dose him with pain medication. He tries to deceive the robot by saying “Failed,” then asks for another injection. But the robot can’t be outsmarted and understands that Grey is actually giving the machine instructions that will lead to an intentional overdose.
Eron’s offer to help Grey leads to surgery on his neck. We see the scalpel slice into his flesh, glimpse a bit of the surgical procedure in which doctors install the Stem chip in Grey’s spinal cord, then (cringe alert!) watch them staple the lengthy incision shut.
Stem does much more than just give Grey his mobility back. If Grey grants permission, Stem takes over his body’s movements completely, essentially turning Grey into a robot-like killing machine. Grey, under Stem’s control, does some nasty things to the men who killed his wife. One is beaten, stabbed, has glass broken against his face before having his cheeks sliced horrifically open. Another gore-filled scene involves a baddie’s head being blown off with a gun. Some of the men Grey squares off against have had guns cybernetically installed in their arms, and we see one of them loading ammunition into his bicep.
A bad guy’s existence ends when his head gets shoved onto a spike of glass. A man is tortured (we don’t see it happening, but we see the results and hear the victim’s screams), with his face being lacerated repeatedly with a knife. (The man soon dies from blood loss.) Another character takes a mortal knife blow to the side of his face. Several people are shot and killed with guns (including some gruesome head shots).
Several melees involve fast-paced martial arts, with hits and kicks brutally knocking people around. One person chokes to death. A thuggish guy repeatedly sticks a knife into various parts of Grey’s body to see if he can feel anything. A lengthy, reckless car chase ends with an accident that bloodies one driver’s head. Someone’s stabbed in the hand with a knife (which stays stuck in that hand for quite some time).
Though Grey initially wants revenge, he’s horrified that Stem essentially takes over and begins to murder people.
About 10 uses each of the f- and s-words. One use of “c–k.” God’s name is misused about 10 times, five with “d–n.” We hear a handful of uses each of “a–,” “a–hole,” “d–n,” “b–ch” and “p-ss.”
Characters drink beer and hard liquor. One scene takes place in a grimy bar where most patrons are drinking and bottles are visible behind the bar. Stem warns Grey that his drinking will impair his ability to walk; Stem also wonders why humans choose to do consume a substance that debilitates their motor skills. We see a bottle of what seems to be prescription medication.
Grey repeatedly lies to Cortez about the murders he’s committed. Other characters act deceptively as well. Two scenes picture Grey vomitting.
Upgrade feels like a strange hybrid—which I suppose is apropos here—of several similar stories we’ve seen over the decades.
It starts out feeling a bit like a really gruesome version of The Six Million Dollar Man or RoboCop. Then things take a decidedly Death Wish-style turn into extreme vengeance, with a heaping helping of Blade Runner lobbed in, too. By the end, artificial intelligence morphs from being a boon to a bane, and it’s impossible not to recall films and TV shows with similar storylines. The Terminator, The Matrix, Ex Machina, Westworld and—of course—2001: A Space Odyssey, what with its duplicitous robot HAL 9000, all come to mind.
It’s no accident that Stem sports a pleasant, helpful persona and voice. He’s here to help, after all. To make life better. A lot like Siri and Alexa, only with the ability to confer ninja skills, too. Only too late do Stem’s creator and recipient realize that this artificially intelligent technological wonder might actually be more intelligent—as in, having a mind of its own—than anyone realizes.
That’s the point here: Ceding every aspect of our lives to technology’s influence and control could eventually lead us to some very bad places. Then again, Upgrade leads viewers to some very nasty places itself as it bloodily rams home its legitimate cautionary message.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.