Upgrade (Whannell, 2018)

It’s not exactly sophisticated aesthetically or thematically, being another skeptical morality play on the dangers of biotechnological advancements that seek to erase our humanity, but Upgrade is quite a likable bit of pulp. There’s a Frankenstein quality to it that appeals. Like Grey Trace’s resurrection from traumatizing disability, the film revisits key sci-fi classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and RoboCop by grabbing certain elements of their visions and stitching together a novel beast that speaks to the contemporary moment, as well as our obsession with the onslaught of new smart technologies. It’s not altogether serious in tone, opting for comic inflections that ask us to marvel a bit at what is possible when human achievements meet lofty expectations, and it’s not altogether comic, since it comes around to condemn our overzealous desires to play God with our bodies (and lives). Packed up in between lies some enjoyable action sequences and a charismatic turn from Logan Marshall-Green, who speaks like he’s Adam Driver’s cousin and made me wonder on more than one occasion how Driver would’ve approached the material. Not to say Marshall-Green should’ve been replaced. I think he needs films like this to break out, and he shows that he has the chops to do it.

Paying homage to the earlier classics does have a drawback, and it’s a lack of unpredictability. Recognizing the beats means you can anticipate them ahead of time, and if the film doesn’t stray from them at all, your wish for excitement dwindles considerably. And so an ending that should theoretically eviscerate you leaves you unfulfilled, and the noise preceding it dims to a faint whistle. The commentary on the intersecting concerns of ableist societies and biotechnology is the most salient takeaway, because it rather fiercely flips Trace’s quadriplegic erasure on its head and smartly condemns the idea that we’d be better off discoursing on a correlation between mending and weakness, rather than focusing on a disabled person’s worth. Total paralysis may make navigating an ableist world treacherous, but it does not mean you are a lesser person because of it. We will lose far more if we let microchips and artificial intelligence reinforce arbitrary standards of optimal living, and good on Upgrade for taking the stance. It shows far more maturity than even I would have anticipated from a Blumhouse picture.