The fairly peppy, extremely gory science fiction thriller “Upgrade” was originally titled “Stem,” referring to a digital cockroach (“a new, better brain,” its pale inventor notes) implanted in the body of the protagonist. The time is the near future. The place is a world of driverless cars and Siri-like communications and control systems designed to reassure the human population while undermining its autonomy in this forbidding vision of Earth as a hellhole of convenience.
Our hero is an analog tough guy, a mechanic who loves tinkering with late 20th century muscle cars. The mechanic’s name is Grey Trace because the name Speckuva Human was already taken, and he’s played by Logan Marshall-Green, an actor of considerable, nimble physicality and trace elements of Ashton Kutcher in his line readings.
Writer-director Leigh Whannell gets right to it. Grey and his corporate drone wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), become victims of a brutal mugging that leaves Asha mortally wounded and Grey hanging on for dear life, while surveillance drones capture it all live. At death’s door, Grey’s saved by a complete artificial overhaul, including the smartbug critter invented by the tech genius with the sallow complexion (Harrison Gilbertson, on what might be termed a Jared Leto summer internship). This renders him superhumanly lethal and superDUPER fast with the knife and martial arts skills.
“Upgrade” follows a straight line, as Grey pursues the thugs who offed his wife. All the while the voice of the robo-roach purrs in his brain, giving him instructions, reminding him when it’s time to let the bug inside take control of the operating system, aka Grey’s bio-engineered body. The movie is basically 95 minutes with a really, really skillful tech support person. Simon Maiden provides the voice, and if he’s not the guy who does the voice prompts for United Airlines’ 800 number, he’s the guy they should call when the other guy is busy.
The movie pumps a lot of blood and viscera with the occasional witty rejoinder. (It’s amusing to hear the voice nag its humanoid host to “clean up the vomit in the sink.”) Grey’s adversaries include a hired gun whose gun is concealed inside his forearm. I’ve sort of had it with that stuff. More interesting by far is Betty Gabriel, the ringer of the “Get Out” ensemble cast. Here she makes do as the police detective assigned to solve the murder of Asha and to shovel the exposition, and investigate why Grey, who uses a wheelchair after the initial attack, keeps turning up in the vicinity of dead bodies in rough parts of town. (The movie was made in Melbourne, Australia.)
Whannell was a key collaborator on the “Saw” franchise, as well as the “Insidious” franchise, and he remains devoted to body horror for shock effect. We’re constantly witnessing sliced jawbones and severed whatevers, and as director (this is his second feature) Whannell is learning how forward motion can allow a filmmaker to get away with some pretty outlandish brutality. I wish the talk-dependent sequences weren’t so foreshadowed and clunky; only Gabriel transcends them. It’s time for the Blumhouse empire, the shrewd paragon of the off-formula low-budget genre picture, to take this performer off the sidelines and onto her own damn movie.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
"Upgrade" -- 2.5 stars
MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, grisly images and language)
Running time: 1:35
Opens: Thursday evening