In “Upgrade,” Logan Marshall-Green plays Grey Trace, a man left paralyzed by a gang of mysterious attackers. With a small, buglike computer chip called STEM implanted in his neck, Grey is able to walk again, but that’s not all. In a moment of crisis, STEM can take over Grey’s body, coordinate his movements and reduce any oncoming opponent to dead meat. As Grey hunts down the man who injured him — and killed his wife — this little chip will come in handy.
“Let me know,” STEM says in a calm voice that only Grey can hear, “if you need my help.”
“Upgrade,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell, is sci-fi pulp that comes packed with ideas. For starters, it’s unabashedly inspired by the classic pop movies of the 1980s, from “Terminator” to “RoboCop,” and often manages, even on its limited budget, to capture their galloping energy and sense of fun. “Upgrade” delivers several terrific action sequences using swift choreography, some highly inventive camerawork and old-fashioned, hands-on effects (props, makeup, blood). Best of all, as our human hero and his microchip assistant go hunting for clues, “Upgrade” becomes a genre mash-up of cyborg thriller, body-horror movie, buddy comedy and film noir. It’s the latest example of cost-effective creativity from the Blumhouse consortium ("Get Out'), and an unexpected treat from Whannell, best known for his work on the “Saw” and “Insidious” franchises.
The film’s bigger, faster, stronger premise may not be terribly original, but our hero’s conflicted relationship to technology feels new, or least newly relevant. Grey, a vintage car mechanic in a driverless world, isn’t much impressed by computers until he becomes a guinea pig for STEM — a pet project of the wealthy tech mogul Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), whose name seems just a few letters away from Elon Musk. Soon, Grey finds himself increasingly dependent on, and morally compromised by, the processor in his body. “Get the knife, Grey,” STEM coos as they hover over a potential torture victim. Little by little, STEM becomes the user, and Grey becomes its Alexa.
When Grey finally finds his man, a computer-enhanced soldier named Fisk (a smarmy Benedict Hardie), and all questions are answered, it’s a bit of a letdown. Still, “Upgrade” is hugely enjoyable and delivers just about everything it promised. In another summer of computer-generated blockbusters, it’s a handmade blast of entertainment.