Upgrade: A secular possession film


Upgrade poster

Leigh Whannel’s latest film, Upgrade, has been hyped by several reviewers as something of  across between William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the dark sci-fi series Black Mirror. The film lives up to the hype, for the most part. Upgrade is slick and visually stylish, existing in a future that seems so close to our current reality, if only the Baby Boomers had bothered to invest in infrastructure and scientific research. (Just read A Generation of Sociopaths if you don’t believe me.) And if only the transhumanist movement hadn’t become defunct before before biohacking could even become mainstream.

Much of Upgrade seems like a transhumanist cyperpunk fantasy melded with exploitation film revenge narrative. During a mugging, protagonist Grey Trace is paralyzed and his wife is killed. Eron, a Frankensteinian genius, offers to implant a sentient AI chip called STEM into Grey’s spine, allowing him to walk again. In case Eron’s God-complex wasn’t obvious, we get to see him manipulating a miniature storm cloud inside his living room.

Upgrade Logan
Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace

In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover argued that the body horror genre is essentially the secular humanist version of the demon possession film. Upgrade is no exception. As Grey recovers, he becomes obsessed with finding his wife’s killers. STEM turns him into a killing-machine, and there’s both humor and genuine horror in Grey’s inability to control his own body while STEM mutilates the villains. Grey isn’t the only upgraded human. His enemies have implants such as literal handguns, infrared vision, and the ability to kill an opponent with a single sneeze. The action scenes are fun to watch, and occasionally gruesome. Aside from such creative concepts, much of the Upgrade is carried by the performance of Logan Marshall-Green, whose portrayal of emotional brokenness reminds me of his role in one of my favorite films, The Invitation.


The only downside of the film is that, with the exception of Grey and STEM, all of the characters seem two-dimensional and are never seriously developed. Perhaps this is a conscious choice, given that the human perspective shouldn’t necessarily be the privileged perspective in this narrative. Without giving major spoilers, the technology in Upgrade isn’t so much of a transhuman dream as a posthuman nightmare, with more in common with the philosophy of Nick Land than that of William Gibson. While the twist ending isn’t entirely unexpected, it subverts our earlier notion of what it means to “upgrade.”


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