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(The 2018 SXSW Film Festival kicked off March 9 and ran all the way through to March 17. Hammer to Nail has a slew of reviews and interviews coming in hot and heavy so keep your dial tuned to HtN!)

If Artificial intelligence is basically considered to be any mechanical device that can mimic functions of the brain, what do you call a human body that is upgraded with an AI chip that works in association with the brain? As medical processes and synthetic body parts advance, we really better start thinking about this post haste. This is pretty near-future stuff. Luckily, Leigh Whannell’s SXSW Midnighter audience award winner Upgrade is one step ahead of us.

This near-future-cyberpunk-science-fiction flick tells the story of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a mechanic of classic cars – which have become a novelty for the incredibly wealthy during a time of self-driving cars – who is left paralyzed after a gang attack. As luck would have it, one of Grey’s high dollar clients (Harrison Gilbertson) happens to work on the bleeding edge of medical technology – his laboratory is carefully hidden in a camouflaged underground lair, that’s just how bleeding edge he is.

Grey may be an analog anomaly in a digitally enhanced universe, but he also wants revenge. Next thing Grey knows, he has experimental chip named “STEM” implanted into his spine. Oh, and Grey is walking again thanks to “STEM.”

But, the problems begin once “STEM” (voiced by Simon Maiden) starts talking to him. Imagine if KITT was implanted into Michael Knight’s brain (you know, instead of being a Pontiac Firebird he drives around in). That pretty much describes “STEM.” Grey learns that he is able to give complete control over his body to “STEM” (like Michael Knight letting KITT take over the driving when things get a bit hairy), which allows him to morph into the ultimate killing machine.

So, not only has Grey sold out his analog soul for a digital upgrade, but he’s also become a vessel for an unabashed slaughterer. Thus commences Grey’s existential quagmire, which thankfully provides Upgrade with an incredibly smart and philosophical offset to its unbridled hyper-violence.

Grey is able to walk again and revenge his aggressors, but how does he deal with the incredible violence enacted by “STEM”? How does he differentiate the actions of “STEM” from his own? By consciously turning control over to “STEM,” does that implicate Grey for what “STEM” has done? Additionally, Grey realizes that his ability to walk is not natural or organic; he can only walk because a machine has control of his body. Grey finds himself stuck in the grey area between man and machine, how can he reconcile that?

– Don Simpson (@thatdonsimpson)

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