Leigh Whannell’s Most Underrated Sci-Fi Thriller Deserves a Closer Look
Before Invisible Man, the director explored the dangers of AI in an eerily prescient 2018 film.
Before the release of Venom in the autumn of 2018, another movie trafficked in a similar premise — with a technophobic twist. And however much goofy fun Venom is good for, this other movie about otherworldly possession leaves a stronger, more lasting impression, atop legitimately impressive choreography and an unshakeable sense of dread.
On June 1, 2018, the sci-fi action horror movie Upgrade shook up a hot summer movie season that was already ablaze with superhero blockbusters, family fares, and Crazy Rich Asians. Five years later, when the mere mention of AI inspires a mix of excitement, anger, and suspicion, Upgrade feels prescient in its bone-chilling warnings against the power of this technology to totally supplant the human soul.
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, Upgrade is the story of Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), a Luddite mechanic who gets attacked by a street gang who murder his wife and leave him paralyzed. Grey is implanted with a cutting-edge artificial intelligence called STEM — a creation of a reclusive tech billionaire — that allows him to regain motor functions in his body. It also features “upgrades” that turn Grey into an unstoppable machine (quite literally) to hunt down his assailants.
Whannell, who previously collaborated with James Wan on the Saw franchise, unleashes magnificent action via Grey’s inhuman kung fu, which unexpectedly transforms Upgrade into a popcorn flick with the vibes of a midnight drive-in. But for all the bloodletting, Whannell is clearly more interested in the abyss of spiritual despair. So much of Upgrade is slow and calculated in its pacing, unsullied by the frenzied energy of careless direction. Likewise, this ensures the movie is never about the thrill of what Grey can do, but the fear for what it’s all going to cost him.
Two years after Upgrade, Whannell’s modernized remake of The Invisible Man treaded similar motifs. That film, too, explored technology’s terrifying power to manipulate the human body to become something else. But Upgrade makes for a strikingly strong complimentary double feature with Ruben Fleischer’s Venom. It’s not merely the physical resemblances between Marshall-Green and Venom’s Tom Hardy — although what a truly fun coincidence — but how the two movies diverge from similar narrative premises.
Of the two, Upgrade is without question the more compelling. It simply does so much more with so much less, and wisely understands the abject horror most would have about a loss of control. Whatever thrills there are in letting the machine algorithmically generate your ability to kick some ass, none of it feels worth the price of surrendering your own selfhood to someone — or something — else.
Unlike Venom, which only had the facade of a darker film in contrast to other superhero flicks, Upgrade actually has some dirt under its fingernails. It isn’t a crowd-pleaser nor is it laced with ironic humor. And STEM never once comes off like an escapist power fantasy in the way the symbiote often does.
Upgrade is unambiguously about the all-destroying power of vengeance and the paradoxical ways science can be made by man and still feel too eldritch to really understand. This isn’t a new idea. Such a theme has long underscored other sci-fi about AI, from The Terminator to The Matrix to I, Robot to Her. But as AI evolves to the point it now threatens so many livelihoods, Upgrade feels as potent as ever in how it proves not every cutting-edge progression is actually progress.