There’s a small movie theater in the basement of the Crosby Street Hotel in the Soho neighborhood of downtown New York City. The last time I was there, I saw a screening of Ex Machina, a beautifully shot, tensely paced film that ponders what might happen if a computer born out of our Google searches was brought into the world. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end well.
Many works of science fiction that wrestle with the future of AI seem to warn that some combination of super-intelligent computers and robots will be humanity’s downfall, or, at least, rather dangerous to our continued existence. Terminator, The Matrix, Blade Runner, I Robot, Chappie, and Ex Machina all express a fear that, if we try to play god, we won’t be able to control our creations. As a society, we need to be wary of what we create.
I was back at Crosby Street last week to see a new movie, Upgrade, that appeared from the trailers to be in a similar vein. It’s set in what looks like the near future, when autonomous vehicles have proliferated, and policing is carried out by drones that can recognize anyone’s face. The film follows Grey Trace (played by Logan Marshall-Green), a car mechanic in a world when cars drive themselves. Trace is a quadriplegic due to injuries sustained in a car accident, which was immediately followed by a robbery where his wife was shot in cold blood. One of Trace’s customers is a man named Eron, the head of the world’s most advanced robotics companies. Eron offers Grey a chance to walk again through an illegal operation that would implant a computer chip, called STEM, into his neck.
STEM works amazingly well—in fact, it not only lets Grey walk again, but turns him into a superhuman who uses his newfound strength, speed, and intelligence to track down his wife’s killer. STEM, which can talk to Grey, appears at first to be along for the ride, in much the same way that KITT in Knight Rider helped David Hasselhoff solve so many crimes. But it’s no surprise that STEM eventually decides it wants more control. That’s when the outlook for all the non-computer-enhanced humans around quickly goes south.
However, this isn’t the typical AI dystopia of recent sci-fi filmmaking. Upgrade was written and directed by Leigh Whannell, whose previous work includes gory horror films like the first three Saw and Insidious movies, and was released by Blumhouse, the production company behind just about every good horror film in recent years, including the Oscar-winning Get Out. Instead of bashing viewers over the head with heady predictions about what an intelligent computer might mean for the future of society, Upgrade just bashes a lot of heads. And it’s brilliant.
After the screening, I asked Marshall-Green how he prepared for the role. “I can’t say I spent too much time thinking about Skynet,” he said, referencing the computer program that destroys humanity in the Terminator series. When I followed up with a question about what he wanted moviegoers to take away from the film, Marshall-Green said “I just want [viewers] to have fun. I don’t think we’re trying to be bigger than we are.”
Like most Blumhouse movies, Upgrade worked with a relatively small budget (the exact figure hasn’t been released, but the production company’s films tend to range between $3 million and $5 million) and practical effects (rather than more expensive computer-generated ones) to build a near-future world. At times, this gives it a sort of 1980s B-action-movie vibe, down to the sort of creepy, electronic score that hasn’t been heard since Kurt Russell was in his prime. Marshall-Green compared Upgrade to two of that era’s best examples of the genre, Terminator and RoboCop, which managed to tell grand, futuristic stories through a narrow lens, and also with relatively small budgets: they had “bigs, futuristic worlds, but their stories were only told within a compact sample,” Marshall-Green said. “It was important to keep it pedestrian,” he added, explaining Whannell’s scope for the movie.
I might’ve had to watch parts of the movie through my fingers (I am a massive wuss), but I came away greatly enjoying it for what it was. As a technology reporter who has been lucky enough to cover some of the cutting-edge advances in artificial intelligence and robotics over the last few years, I can safely say that we are very far away from a chip like STEM, and it seems those involved in the movie knew that. Upgrade doesn’t preach about our relationship to technology, but rather uses a computer as a vehicle to tell a very fun, albeit very gory, story. If you go in expecting the next Ex Machina, you’ll likely be disappointed. If you go in expecting to just be entertained, you’ll go home happy.
Upgrade opens across the US on June 1.