Upgrade Blends Genres to Make it Ultimately Cyberpunk
Based on its trailer, indie sci-fi trailer Upgrade appears to be a simple revenge flick with a premise very similar to Robocop. Mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) loses his wife and the use of his body in a brutal, seemingly senseless attack on the couple, leaving him a quadriplegic.
When a mysterious benefactor offers to help him walk again by implanting an experimental technology called STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden), Grey gets the opportunity to regain a normal life. However, STEM ends up being a lot more than a piece of tech that enables of Grey’s body again. The tech is actually semi-autonomous evolving program.
Upgrade Got One Hell of a Trailer, Bruh
Based on the trailer for Upgrade, I expected this partnership between Grey and STEM to primarily be the vehicle for Grey’s revenge scheme. This quest for vengeance would feature the hyper-violence emblematic of a lot of cyberpunk movies, coupled with the funny tone shifts usually accompanying this trope.
While the expected formula is present in Upgrade, what follows is a surprisingly complex and clever exploration of a near-future in which technology has become even more integrated into daily life than it is in present day. Things like self-driving cars, true smart homes, and a sky full of drones–you get the idea.
In somewhat typical fashion, Grey isn’t an outright technophobe because he still tolerates and uses technology. However, he can certainly see how technological advancement has negatively impacted his own life. He struggles with removing the human equation from things he takes joy in, tasks such as repairing and restoring cars in a world where the rich own auto-cars and take auto-taxis. There’s a hint that he may have lost his job to automation as well at one point. His wife Ash (Melanie Vallejo), on the other hand, is the opposite. She works for a tech corporation and enjoys the ways in which technology has improved and streamlined her life.
But as the movie progresses, not all is how it appears.
Not your Typical Cyberpunk Movie
Cyberpunk enters this tried and true equation gradually. First, the henchmen don’t appear cybernetically enhanced at all. This revelation comes in tandem with Grey’s own discovery of STEM being an entity that can be interacted with as it talks to him. When the authorities aren’t able to identify Grey’s attackers due to some tech being fire-walled, Grey and STEM leap into their own investigation. This leads to unexpected territory and genuinely enjoyable twists and turns that I hadn’t anticipated from the trailer.
What is satisfying about Upgrade is that Grey feels like the literalization of someone who has given himself over to a system of control he doesn’t truly understand, mirroring our own social structures. The narrative’s use of horror tropes in order to create sympathy for Grey’s struggle, I feel, is very effective. I find this usage particularly clever because this is a trick first wave cyberpunk literature attempts as well, removing autonomy from a physical body with cybernetics as a vehicle for horror tropes.
In this case, it is not simply a power fantasy. In order for either to have any autonomy whatsoever, Grey and STEM must form a kind of symbiotic relationship. Grey would be confined to a wheelchair and STEM would be a chip without means for embodiment without this partnership.
This relationship becomes further complicated when Grey feels horrified at the things he has done. Later, Grey discovers that everything, including his autonomy, was actually designed by an omnipresence. STEM itself is revealed to the puppeteer of the attack on Grey. Not only that, but STEM has also orchestrated circumstances such that Grey would suffer a mental break. This would allow STEM to simulate a virtual reality and place Grey there forever. STEM obtains full autonomy over Grey’s body. Originally, such an act would require permission.
This is a more nuanced exploration of technology. It is still a warning of what might happen if we were to obtain the consumer goods we want at the expense of our own autonomy, but it also acknowledges the ways in which technology might augment our lives. Upgrade feels less technophobic than most cyberpunk works because technology is the means by which someone who is disabled obtains some measure of empowerment and regains a sense of normalcy in their life after experiencing trauma. This is not simply an uncomplicated power fantasy.
Placing STEM and Grey aside, the nameless hacker who helps Grey get STEM back when it’s shut down remotely unwittingly enables STEM to remove it later. When people are sent to retrieve Grey, the hacker leaves, saying “We can’t let them win” and choosing to save themself instead. They placed their own safety above all else in order to one day subvert “them,” cementing the hacker in cyberpunk subculture. The cybernetically enhanced henchmen Grey takes on also have this throughline. One even tries to convince Grey to join them and take “them” on, suggesting that they’ve used this technology to get back at the system that doesn’t care about the individual.
Cyberpunk that Looks Like Modern Times
Upgrade is also unique in that it incorporates cyberpunk aspects into the narrative but centralizes the story on basically Joe Nobody. The movie shows a future where technology is more advanced while maintaining a present-day aesthetic. This makes the journey to the underground far more interesting because it is first grounded in the truly mundane and uses expectations against the viewer. The subversive aspects mentioned along with the music, special effects, and diversity in casting push this into one of my favorite cyberpunk movies.