Upgrade starts out as a “by-the-book” bit of cyberpunk sci-fi. I-Could-Swear-That’s-Tom-Hardy, burly house-husband and committed future luddite, and his charming wife, Succesful-Generica, live in Now, But With Self-Driving Cars And Police Drones (population: lots). Fifteen minutes in, they get ambushed in their fancy car, him getting paralysed and her getting fridged in an unnecessarily sexual manner. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Tom Hardy then broods over being paraplegic and widowed, until Jared Leto-Lite offers to implant him with Legally-Not-The-Venom-Symbiote, later upgraded with Siri: Ultimate Fighting Championship Edition.
Somewhere along the way, in very subtle increments, it starts to evolve beyond a stock revenge story and into something more intelligent than that. Firstly, there is the husband’s reaction to his situation, namely his outright suicidal state. He very clearly does not react well to the loss of his wife, and his sense of being a burden unto his mother, and his attempt at ending it all is opportunistic rather than planned or overtly foreshadowed. On top of that, when he does become involved with the hunt for his wife’s killers, it’s through reviewing the evidence the police have given him with the intention of getting them to do their job, rather than a planned murder spree.
Gradually things step up even further, and we start getting some interesting ideas rolling in. These include questions about what being upgraded will do to a person, discussions on responsibilities in an automated world, and even open talk on the morals of revenge and on how it inevitably leads to escalation. There are also some pretty nicely shot fight scenes, an automated car being hacked and turned into a vehicular missile, and, possibly a film first, a nano-razor snot attack. This is topped off by some rather graphic body horror moments/headshots, and a nice bit of realism as the protagonist reacts to his first-ever murder by uncontrollably throwing up in a sink.
The plot rolls on towards what we feel is their inevitable conclusion, but it’s in the final ten minutes that the whole of the prior story gets totally reshaped and you start rethinking everything you just saw whilst taking everything now happening. It’s a mental sprint to the finish when you had just got used to a steady jog. By starting with story clichés and laying down a series of well-known cyberpunk trope “sins” along the way, the film has actively convinced us that we think we know what’s going on and how it’s all going to end. When everything finishes, we are not just left with having to work out what we missed in the plot, but also revisiting the questions and ideas that the film asked us previously. Nothing is so oblique as to demand a second watch, but it does leave you thinking about it all long after you thought you would have forgotten it all.
Which is not to say that the moments up to the end were unenjoyable, Logan Marshall-Green does a solid job as the husband, Melanie Vallejo was excellent (if brief) as the wife, and Harrison Gilbertson truly sells his role as the 20-something super genius who has lost touch with humanity. There is also a reasonable amount of well-executed world-building, with some subtle observations on the usage and impact of drone surveillance, how criminality would operate in a connected universe, and the inevitability of what people are going to get up to in self-driving cars.
The problem is that the first 30 to 45 minutes may put you off as they are, as said, treading a number of well-worn paths. The film holds its cards very close to its chest, holding off having anything to say about the world it’s created or the world we live in until the very end, and I suspect a number of casual viewers and cyberpunk enthusiasts may give it a miss because they think they know everything they are about to see. But if you can get past that then it offers something more interesting than it’s packaging suggests. A surprise upgrade, if you will.