It's safe to say Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is no fan of technology, or at least he's no fan of technology from after the twentieth century, as his raison d'etre is to restore old cars to their former glory in his capacity as a mechanic - he will listen to his vinyl blues records as he does so, just to envelop himself in that retro vibe. But the world has moved on from those days, as it is now the future where everyone else has a mobile phone, or a driverless car, or some other piece of kit to make life that bit easier for them. Grey's wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) gently chides him for his discomfort with the up to date, but his misgivings are about to be proven entirely justified...
Australian Leigh Whannell returned to his homeland to write and direct this nifty little science fiction low budgeter, his experience on bigger projects seeing him in good stead when it came to making a little go a long way: this served up glossy, witty and propulsive entertainment in a way that the low budget auteurs of the past and present would look upon with envious eyes. He was dealing with exploitation movies, sure, but as Roger Corman could tell you, if you deliver on the saleable elements, in this case a hefty dose of gruesome violence, then you can smuggle in all sorts of messages and observations; Whannell here apparently shared the misgivings of his protagonist.
But technophobic science fiction went back to The Terminator, Westworld, even The Twonky, so Upgrade needed something to stand out from the crowd, especially at a time when the millennials could not envisage a day without their phones or tablets being turned on. Quite how much of yourself you should share with the tech you have, and how vulnerable giving so much of your life away to it, was the issue here, as this was released at a time when the billions of users of the internet were realising they were being transformed into commodities simply by logging onto social media run by corporations getting unimaginably wealthy off those users they exploited.
If you were fine with this betrayal of trust, with becoming the product as you were directed to buy and invest as consumerism ran rampant and even the "experiences" you were valuing over your worldly goods were merely another channel to make the corporations even richer, then being played for a sucker wouldn't bother you too much and Upgrade would not come across as anything aside from a violent sci-fi action flick of which there were an abundance. But should you ever have had a legitimate concern over who can see your supposedly private material, then the way Grey was taken over by his gadgets, or one gadget in particular, may well strike a chord. Yes, the appearance of the tech here was somewhat hokey, but that was part of the charm, disarming you until you thought "Waaaait a minute..."
What happens is that Grey and Asha are being driven home one night from their well-off scientist benefactor Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) when the unthinkable happens, their driverless car malfunctions and they end up crashing in one of the rougher areas of the city. No sooner have they been dragged from the wreckage than they are robbed and shot, fatally in Asha's case, and Grey is paralysed from the neck down. Understandably, he is miserable and the only thing keeping him going is the thought of bringing the gang who murdered his spouse to justice, but then Keen offers a suggestion: he is aware his friend does not like technology, but he has an implant he can place on his spine so Grey could walk again. Desperate, he accepts, and the effects are miraculous, yet as he turns detective the implant, called Stem, proves more domineering than he anticipated - but mightily useful in his quest, not to say defending himself as excessively as possible. Shot innovatively, Upgrade was a satisfying four course meal at a bargain price, plenty to chew over but exciting and suspenseful too, with a real crusher of an ending. Music by Jed Palmer.