starring Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie
written and directed by Leigh Whannell
by Walter Chaw I can't imagine I'll ever see a better Venom movie than Leigh Whannell's Upgrade, the story of a mild-mannered Luddite mechanic named Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) who one day, after delivering a tricked-out antique ride to cyber-genius Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), is paralyzed in a terrible accident and forced to watch his girlfriend, tech-company functionary Asha (Melanie Vallejo), get assassinated by modded-out thugs led by psychopath Fisk (Benedict Hardie). In the film's near-future, there are limited Tetsuo: The Iron Man body modifications like guns embedded in gunsel's palms and enhanced limbs and vision alongside more common advances like self-driving cars and A.I. assistants. The tech, in other words, is entirely credible at first, as the film eases us into nanotechnology and an A.I., STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden), implanted in Grey to not just "cure" his paralysis but also, when allowed to operate independently, turn Grey into a one-man vengeance puppet. The first scene of STEM's emancipation is a glorious invention of fight choreography and performance philosophy: Grey is literally possessed, doesn't really "invest" in what his body's doing to other bodies, and, at the end of the sequence, begs with the last not-dismembered bad guy to please not get up off the floor. It's a Buster Keaton gag, really--the stone-faced centre of a violent storm. Marshall-Green's performance reminded me of both Steve Martin's in All of Me and Jeff Fahey's in Body Parts. In a year that saw another instalment in Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible series, this here is the year's best action scene.
The film transitions into a story about artificial intelligence and what it wants even as it continues to play out the question of who a man is, i.e., if his identity is dictated by the acts of his body or the feats of his mind. STEM gains sentience as one knew he must, and testament to Upgrade's cleverness that clues to STEM's design have been placed in plain sight from the beginning. It's the rare film that's smarter than its audience and also not a dick about it. It doesn't talk down, it plays fair, and its grim resolution is the kind of grim that's also exhilarating. STEM is a lot like Ex Machina's Ava in that he appears to care about people but sees them as the means to an end. Their motives are unknowable. I heard a thing once that the way that A.I. would eventually destroy the world is that it would decide the best thing to do would be to make forks or something and then proceed to exhaust the world's resources in that pursuit. Upgrade honours the idea that our ultimate undoing will likely be as a result of our thinking we can predict what anything we create will "want"--that it would want anything at all. There's a hard sci-fi conversation at the centre of this deliriously fun B-movie confection. It's tight as a drum and a surprise in almost every way, and in consideration of the whole and of our place at this moment in our history, on the precipice of one way of doom or the next, it's one of the best movies of the year.