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‘Upgrade’: This 2018 sci-fi flick did the ‘Venom’ thing better than ‘Venom’ - stream it on Peacock
Sometimes that little voice inside you is more than just a voice.
Letting that other thing that’s living inside you take control is pretty much the signature superpower (and super pain in the ass) that propels Marvel’s Venom stories in the comics and in the movies. But what if we told you there’s a sweet little mid-budget action thriller out there that took that basic idea, added a twist of The Six Million Dollar Man, and (prepare for the pun) Upgraded it in every way?
That’s the claim to fame of Upgrade (streaming at Peacock), the Blumhouse-produced, Leigh Whannell written-and-directed cyberpunk sci-fi joint that won a 2018 audience award at SXSW and managed to make back almost six times its paltry reported $3 million production budget. A slick-looking tour of a dystopian, high-surveillance society set in the near future, Upgrade takes a blissfully dark dive into the black market world of illegal augments and the frighteningly leveled-up powers they promise — which is where that whole Venom connection comes in.
Logan Marshall-Green (The O.C., Spider-Man: Homecoming) stars as Grey Trace, an old-school tinkerer who’d rather work on his ‘70s-vintage Trans Am than play around with the latest tech. His wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) works for a (legal) augment company called Cobolt, far more friendly toward the advancing world’s talking cars, smart-home automation, and pervasive drone watchers than her retro spouse. They’re happy together, though — until a seemingly random out-on-the-town incident takes remote control of their smart car, crashes it in a derelict part of town, and leaves them exposed to a group of waiting assassins.
Asha’s murdered in the attack, while Grey sustains injuries that leave him paralyzed from the neck down. On waking to his grief (and the reality of his profound new disability), Grey gets a visit from Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), his reclusive tech billionaire friend, with an offer that sounds too good to be true: All he has to do is agree to be an implant guinea pig for a powerful, highly illegal chip device known as STEM — and in return, STEM will bypass Grey’s severed nerve channels to reestablish the connections that’ll enable him to walk again.
Seizing on the prospect as a way to exact revenge on his wife’s killers, Grey bites on the offer — only to discover, days later, that STEM comes with a hidden feature Eron never mentioned. The little bug-sized gadget implanted at the base of his neck can actually talk to him — and to him only — while even offering to use its real-time AI powers to take full control of Grey’s body and perform feats that absolutely obliterate the slow-moving, trial-and-error reflexes that mere mortals typically rely on.
Whannell’s story highlights the latent human superpowers STEM unlocks to great effect, transforming Grey from a bedridden quadriplegic into an efficient fighting machine as Grey tracks down one of the assassin gang’s lackeys for info on his wife’s trigger man. But Grey’s self-defense code of conduct quickly takes a back seat to STEM’s colder, more ruthless approach to self-preservation, once the movie introduces a technological twist that carries shades of the self-willed HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
As Grey and STEM verbally (and hilariously) spar over the ethics of justified killing, the body count piles up, with STEM eventually taking full control of Grey’s actions while he protests helplessly like a Venom-conquered Eddie Brock. Beyond that, to explain the dual cat-and-mouse game they play to stay one step ahead of both an inquisitive homicide investigator — not to mention the part-cyborg techno-thugs who murdered his wife — would spoil the plot, and also give away the deeper connections that explain how Asha’s murder perhaps wasn’t quite so random as it seemed.
It’s safe to say, though, that Upgrade wasn’t made in the same big-budget, test-audience environment that compels studios to tack happy endings onto more conventional sci-fi fare like Venom. When the end comes, you’ll get why it happened…even if you’re shocked at what it means for Grey’s future (and the future of amoral machines that can turn human beings into something…more).
Happy ending or not, one thing’s for sure: This is the best-looking $3 million movie you’re ever likely to see, with practical gore effects and sleek, futuristic visuals that evoke the same kind of bearable dystopia seen in futuristic IPs like Westworld, Devs, The Peripheral, and the cyber-fueled Deus Ex video games. Best of all, if you’re a Peacock subscriber, it’s only a click away: Catch Upgrade streaming on the bird app anytime…while you still have full control of your faculties.