The Surprisingly Relevant Message of Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade

AI is a pretty hot topic these days, especially in the movie world. It was one of the biggest sticking points in the recent SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, and in the past decade or so, we’ve been treated to a veritable cornucopia of films that center around this cutting-edge technology. For example, just last year we got the hit killer doll movie M3GAN and the criminally underseen gem The Creator, and the previous decade saw the release of modern classics like Ex Machina, Blade Runner 2049, and Upgrade.

But by and large, those films aren’t particularly relevant to the controversies swirling around AI today. See, the vast majority of them take one of two approaches to this subject. Some are fun, Terminator-esque horror/thrillers about an AI program gone rogue, and others are thinly veiled metaphors for things like human dignity and human rights, but neither of those themes has much to do with the conversation surrounding this technology.

However, there is one shining exception to that general rule: Leigh Whannell’s sci-fi thriller Upgrade. Admittedly, Upgrade is about more than just AI, but the way it incorporates AI into its story is a nearly perfect allegory for the real-life dangers this technology poses. It’s almost like Leigh Whannell saw the future and made a movie about it, so let’s dive into Upgrade and see just what it has to say about one of the hottest topics in the world today.

The Basic Plot

But before we begin, we should take a moment to get our bearings and go over the film’s plot. Upgrade is set a few decades in the future, and it’s about Grey Trace, an auto mechanic who’s not too keen on modern technology. He prefers hands-on work that allows him to touch and feel the things he’s making, but his wife Asha is the exact opposite.

She works for a company that provides robotic limbs for wounded soldiers, and she’s a total tech junkie. For example, she rides a completely self-driving car, and she even has an AI assistant that’s a bit reminiscent of J.A.R.V.I.S. from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

One day, as Asha and Grey are in their self-driving car, the vehicle malfunctions and crashes, and the couple is found by a group of masked thugs. These thugs kill Asha and shoot Grey, but he survives the attack. However, it leaves him paralyzed from the neck down, so he falls into a deep depression soon after returning home from the hospital.

Grey and Asha kissing

He tries to commit suicide but fails, and while he’s recovering, he’s contacted by a former customer of his, a tech mogul named Eron Keen. The guy offers to implant a computer chip called STEM in Grey’s neck, and he says it’ll allow him to move normally once again. Grey agrees, but as you can probably guess, he gets a bit more than he bargained for.

See, STEM is an AI chip, and it helps him track down and kill the people who ruined his life. It all goes pretty well at first, but Upgrade eventually takes a very dark turn. In the final few minutes, we find out that STEM is actually behind everything that’s happened to Grey since the movie began.

The chip wants to be human, so it hired the thugs and coerced Eron into offering to help Grey regain use of his body. Then, after the psychological strain becomes too much for Grey to bear, the poor guy’s mind snaps, and STEM takes complete control. Grey is now living in a dream where his wife is still alive, and in the real world, his body is being controlled by the malevolent AI.

Baseballs and Unemployment Lines

Once you know how Upgrade ends, it’s not hard to understand that the film is an allegory for the various ways technology is taking over our lives, but if you pay close attention, you’ll realize that the movie actually foreshadows that message in its very first shot. Upgrade opens on a vinyl record playing music, and as the camera pans over to Grey, we see a few of the items he likes to keep in his workshop.

Among other things, there’s a baseball, a bunch of tools, some cash, a few invoice books, and a couple of photographs, and the first time you watch the film, you don’t really think much of this seemingly random mix. However, when you look back on it after you know how the story plays out, it takes on a world of meaning.

See, these are all things our modern society often replaces with technology. For example, many kids today swap out baseball for video games, a lot of big companies use machines to do the work that was once done by men and women with tools, and cash seems to be going by the wayside as credit and debit cards slowly take over. Likewise, very few people bother to keep physical invoices, pictures, or records anymore. They’re all digital these days, so once again, we see that the items in Grey’s workshop all represent a commitment to a very hands-on way of life.

Eron showing Grey and Asha his STEM chip

Then, a few scenes later, Upgrade starts to really hammer this message home. When Grey first learns about STEM, he remarks, “I’m just saying, there’s some things that people do better. I mean, you look at that widget and you see the future, and I look at that thing, I see 10 guys on an unemployment line.” Similarly, on that fatal ride home with his wife, he tells her, “Okay, so what’s a guy like me supposed to do when his widget starts taking over the world?”.

Even if you don’t notice the subtle foreshadowing in Upgrade’s opening shot, these two lines are just about impossible to miss. They let us know without a doubt that the movie really is about the various ways technology is starting to take over our lives. More to the point, they warn us that modern tech has the potential to make real, flesh-and-blood human beings irrelevant, especially in the workplace.

Just like Grey says, as companies use machines and computers to do more work, there’s often less need to employ actual people. Granted, that’s not always the case, but it’s a legitimate concern. Technology is great, but it has a dark side too. Actually, it has multiple dark sides, and one of them is the collateral damage it sometimes causes in the form of unemployed workers whose jobs have been taken over by machines.

The Pain of the Real World

But that’s not the only way modern tech can make real human beings irrelevant. There’s a scene in Upgrade where Grey comes across a bunch of people who do nothing but play VR games all day and night, and they look pretty ridiculous. They’re wearing big headsets and moving around in ludicrous ways, and when Grey sees them, he says what we’re all probably thinking: “Why someone would choose to live in a fake world, I will never understand.”

Admittedly, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it highlights another way technology can take over our lives. Sure, video games and VR aren’t bad in themselves, but if we let them replace our face-to-face human connections, they can be just as harmful as the machines that put workers on unemployment lines.

In response to Grey’s remark, a hacker named Jamie explains, “The fake world is a lot less painful than the real one,” and that line is surprisingly important. As I said before, STEM eventually takes over Grey’s body, and the poor guy ends up living in a dream world, much like the fake reality these VR addicts spend all their time in.

Grey in a hospital bed looking incredulous

Significantly, when STEM explains what’s happened to its host, the AI utters a line that harkens back to the VR scene. It says, “A fake world is a lot less painful than the real one,” and if you’re paying close attention to the film, those words should sound very familiar. They’re almost the exact same words Jamie uses to explain why some people escape into a permanent VR world, so they’re a subtle clue to the meaning of this entire story.

They tell us that Grey’s fate is essentially a metaphor for the potential dangers of technology. Just like STEM took over Grey’s body and replaced him, so too can modern tech take over our world and replace the various roles people play in society and one another’s lives, and that danger isn’t limited to video games. Upgrade highlights some other ways that can happen as well, like when machines and computers take people’s jobs, and once we understand that, the relevance of this film to our current controversies surrounding AI becomes just about impossible to miss.

Upgrade, AI, and the Strikes

Consider the recent SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, for example. AI was one of the biggest sticking points in those labor disputes, and the ways the movie studios were trying to use the technology was pretty scary. They wanted to employ it to write and rewrite scripts, and according to some people, they also wanted to scan certain actors’ images and digitally insert them into films without compensating the performers or getting their consent.

In other words, they wanted to do exactly what Grey Trace was afraid of in Upgrade. Granted, our AI technology isn’t nearly advanced enough to completely replace writers and actors, but it could conceivably get there one day. In the meantime, the studios wanted to use it to leave these artists with as little work as possible.

Eron holding STEM

And that’s just one industry. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if movie executives want to use AI to replace their workers, executives, and bigwigs in other fields will want to do the exact same thing. The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes were just the tip of the iceberg, and in the coming years and decades, we’ll almost certainly see similar disputes arise in other lines of work.

Simply put, AI is legitimately dangerous. Sure, it’s probably not going to wipe us out or enslave us à la The Terminator or The Matrix, but if we’re not careful, we could find ourselves in a world where human creativity is squashed in favor of computer-generated facsimiles. That’s the real threat this technology poses, and of all the AI-themed films I’ve seen, none captures it quite as well as Leigh Whannell’s brilliant sci-fi thriller Upgrade.

Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong movie fan, and his favorite genres are horror, superheroes, and giant monsters.

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