If you were casting a vote for Most Likely to Become an Electronic Killing Machine, Logan Marshall-Green (“Prometheus”) might not be the person you think of first. Low key, lanky, and fairly unassuming, he seems too chill to fit the bill.
And indeed, when we first meet him in “Upgrade,” the latest from writer-director Leigh Whannell (“Saw,” “Insidious”), Marshall-Green’s character, a mechanic named Grey, is content to stay home and refurbish vintage cars for a living while his tech industry wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) brings home the big money that affords them a futuristic smart-manor with elegantly glowing, talking walls that coolly remind them what groceries they need.
It’s the near future, one in which driverless cars are standard issue Lyfts and artificial intelligence permeates daily life. Grey, though, is more or less off the grid. Covered in engine grease, his analog cred is his calling card. So when billionaire weirdo tech-twink Eron (Harrison Gilbertson, Amazon’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock”) summons him for a consultation at an extravagantly minimalist underground lair, Grey brings Eron fan Asha along for the ride. Strange conversations about the future of A.I. ensue, and on their way home a car accident leads to a violent encounter with masked criminals who murder Asha and leave Grey paralyzed.
Living in frustrated isolation and grief, cared for by his mother (Linda Cropper, “The Leftovers”), Grey wants out of the house, possibly out of life itself. That’s when creepy, hovering Eron re-enters the picture, promising a surgically implanted A.I. device that will bring Grey’s body back to full function. The catch: Grey’s recovery must remain secret, for reasons that constitute spoilers. Eron’s clearly disturbed personality may be rivaled only by the mad scientist in “The Human Centipede,” but Grey is ready to endure anything that will allow him to hunt down the mystery men who murdered his wife.
Once Grey receives the cockroach-shaped device known as STEM, he’s back in action and performing wildly robotic martial-arts moves, extra crunchy face kicks, and death blows. Bad guys are on notice, as is patient-yet-suspicious detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel, “Get Out”), who keeps wondering why the still-officially-quadriplegic Grey is always caught on drone cameras at the sites of gruesome slaughter.
If it all sounds a little familiar and reductive, like an electronically enhanced “Death Wish,” that’s only because the film’s silly secrets and brutal set pieces are an integral part of the plot mix and can’t be revealed. If anything, the Australian-born Whannell is most fully in debt to his own country’s “Ozploitation” wave of the 1970s, where goofy, freewheeling, low-budget genre films upped the stakes with extreme action, sex, violence, and a general freedom from restraint.
Comedic death splatters the screen here, as STEM instructs Grey — intentionally soothing and vaguely sinister with its HAL9000 voice — to give up control of his own body and let science help him stomp the life out of his enemies. The shattered bones, punctured necks and viscera spray are frequently as witty as they are shocking, and they’re juxtaposed disorientingly against a cool, ambient blue, emotionless production design and art direction that fully and happily appropriates the chilliest auras of David Cronenberg.
Living spaces are sleekly rich or grimy death hovels, bodies are enhanced docking stations for machinery or broken-down social outcasts waiting to die. It’s a sleek, biomechanical future of desperate unhappiness where nobody gets out alive.
The actors here are capable and game for all of it, but Whannell doesn’t seem to care about that. There’s a whispery air of commentary on the probable negative social outcomes of widespread artificial intelligence, but that’s all it is, a noncommittal atmosphere. What Whannell wants most to do is torment and eventually pulverize most of the people in his narrative orbit and make you laugh while he does so.
Whannell seems never to have met an impossible and hilariously awful situation he didn’t like, whether it’s an imprisoned “Saw” victim with the key to the death chamber embedded behind his eye — sorry, dude, you have to gouge it out yourself with this plastic spork if you want to survive — or an A.I. central nervous system that traps its host and acts out autonomously with increasingly sadism.
He’s a gleefully menacing auteur who’s out to gross you out, his world one where humans are made to be broken, re-purposed, or discarded, their gurgling death rattles the punch line. In this case, the joke is about technology changing the world while not changing a thing, and it lives inside his universe’s ongoing gag, the one about moral righteousness being nice and whatever, but check out how cool it looks when that one guy’s face gets totally sliced off.