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Upgrade review: A gory revenge flick with AI-powered payback

Spoiler-free review: Saw screenwriter Leigh Whannell has seen the future of AI -- and it's a violent, stylish, funny mess.

Blumhouse Productions

There were a few moments in Upgrade, the new sci-fi revenge flick from the horror mastermind who wrote Saw and Insidious, when I closed my eyes and just shook my head.

And no, it wasn't because of the vivid and gory -- yet admittedly well-choreographed -- fight scenes, though there are plenty of those.

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Blumhouse Productions

It's because I couldn't make up my mind if the whole premise of Upgrade adds up to a silly techno-thriller or a clever, prescient riff on the man-machine merger first made famous in Robocop. I'm going to go with a bit of both, with a strong lean toward silly thriller. The movie hit UK theaters Thursday and opens in the US Friday and in Australia June 14. 

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is our hero, an analog guy living in a digital world he barely tolerates in the not-too-distant future. A grizzled mechanic who restores vintage muscle cars, Grey tinkers away in his garage while his wife Asha, a high-tech executive, goes happily to and fro in her self-driving car. They live in a stylish, tricked-out smart home -- complete with a voice assistant that helpfully reminds them what groceries to buy -- in a world that's pretty much embraced autonomous vehicles, AI assistants, smart appliances and VR escapism.

One day, Grey convinces his wife to join him as he drops off a restored car at the minimalist underground mansion of socially awkward tech wunderkind Eron. (That's not a typo. It's Eron, not Elon, though he looks more like a very pale Justin Bieber than Tesla's top man.) Asha's an Eron fan, and he tells her about a new chip he's designed that's going to disrupt the world of medical tech.

You see where this is going, right?

On the way home, someone hacks Asha's car and the two end up getting ambushed by masked thugs, who murder Asha and leave Grey a quadrapeligc. Unhappy and ticked off at the cops for not finding the killers, Grey's ready to give up on life. But then Eron shows up and implants an AI chip called Stem -- I'm not making this up -- that reconnects his brain and spinal cord. Stem comes with a personality (the calm, dispassionate voice of HAL comes to mind) who not only allows Grey to walk again, but is able to take over his body and turn into him into a kick-ass fighter.  Think Jet Li, except instead of Jet Li moving like a ballet dancer, Grey pulls off sophisticated fight moves like a slightly stiff robot.

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Here's where the revenge part comes in. Superhuman Grey gets help from Stem, who helps find new clues from the crime scene photos to track down Asha's killers -- mercenaries who've got guns built into their arms and are able to sneeze microscopic nanobots that infiltrate your brain to kill you.  

Whannell, who wrote and directed Upgrade for Blumhouse (the company behind Get Out), has come up with a timely story, given the debate that's going on in recent weeks about ethics and artificial intelligence. And while the overall acting was kind of wooden -- I think even some of the actors knew they were serving up stereotypical characters -- I give points to Marshall-Green for doing a good job communicating the shock he feels at the over-the-top violence unleashed by his AI-driven body. And points to Whannell for making us laugh when even Grey turns away so Stem can do the dirty work (wait, was that someone's jaw!) and eviscerate the bad guys.

Is this a horror story, predicting the dystopian future that awaits us? Whannel says he'll leave that to us to decide.

"I'm not looking to provide any answers. I'm trying to tell a great story. The questions of 'Where is this going? How much of us are we going to invest in a computer?' -- that's what the film is looking at," Whannel said in a Q&A session at CNET in May. "This image of a quadriplegic being controlled and puppeteered by a computer -- I couldn't stop thinking about it."

I expect sci-fi fans and technophobes will think about it too, given the big reveal when we find out who ordered the hit on Asha and Grey. It's that plot twist that upgrades this otherwise B-movie about man and machine into something slightly more. Let's call it a B+.

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