Movie Review: The AI Future We Fear is one “Upgrade” away

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It’s clever, but we’re not talking “Memento” here, plot-wise.

It’s droll, even in its violence, but Leigh “Saw” Whannell is no Noel Coward.

And even if it’s not a prophetic equal to “2001” or “AI,” it’s vivid and horrific in its depiction of an an ever-so-near future when we’ve ceded just enough control over our freedom and our lives to be looking at our doom, even if we can’t quite see it yet.

“Upgrade” is an entertaining and at times troubling riff of man and machines from the creator of the “Saw” series, horror visionary Leigh Whannell. It’s an American tale set in Australia — because the Future is Australian in sci-fi (“Matrix,” etc.). The time? Just a few years down the road, when the tech we’re relying on to save us apparently has.

That’s the world Asha (Melanie Villalobos) and her husband Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) live in. Their gorgeous, austere and roomy high-tech house runs off its own batteries, the cars are self-driving electro-wagons and the streets strangely under-crowded, as perhaps we’ve finally gotten a handle on over-population.

(Australian sci-fi always looks that way.)

She’s an exec with a robotics firm, he’s an old school muscle car restorer.

One of his clients is Eren, a tech visionary (Harrison Gilbertson) with an effete Dane DeHaan haircut and a thing for a “Smokey and the Bandit” Firebird Trans Am. He shows off his latest superchip, “STEM,” which promises to revolutionize neural computing. And then he sends them off.

But self-driving computerized cars can be hacked, and the drive home diverts the couple into “The Underground,” where the unwashed, under-fed and under-policed masses dwell. An ambush, a murder and Grey is left a quadriplegic, “Someone who liked to get things done with (his) hands, and now you can’t.”

That’s how Eren sweet-talks Grey into submitting to off-the-books surgery. He could be a test-cast for STEM. As the guy has been suicidal and helpless to accomplish even that, why not?

The “miracle” of his motor skills recovery hasn’t even sunk in when Grey, who has been hounding the cops (just one cop, Betty Gabriel) to track down his wife’s killers means he can start to dig into that himself.

But he’s supposed to keep this “illegal” surgery secret. He’ll have to pretend he’s still in that wheelchair. STEM, which guides his movements (jerky, robotic), anticipates threats and gives him speed, agility and fighting skills he never had. And crime-investigating computing power, I might add.

Oh, and STEM talks to Grey. In his head. Grey has to speak out loud to STEM, but STEM doesn’t need the amplification. He’s soft-spoken. Yeah, he sounds just like the HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“Gimme a second.”

“One second has passed.”

You know what’s coming. Grey goes underground, and gets into it with the killers and is troubled by what he’s capable of. STEM?

“I can do it for you. You don’t even have to look.”

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Marshall-Green, of “Sand Castle” and TV’s “Damnation,” has a touch of the young Mel Gibson in the playful way he plays this character, jerking up his physical movements, Robocop style, handling the tried and true war-for-control-of-my-body moments passably.

The script gives us a lip-smacking villain who smacks his lips over lines that require lip-smacking.

“Let my superiority over your kind be the last thought that crosses your mind, before a machine tears it apart.”

There’s little of the harrowing, agonizing tension of “Saw” here. And if you haven’t figured out where this is going (No, I didn’t give that away) by shortly after the shooting (earlier than that is you’re real sharp), you need to see more movies.

But “Upgrade” manages to entice and provoke, impress and terrify, if you let it. Whannell, to his credit, delivers that terror not so much in the movie as you watch it as on the ride home…in a car that you still “have” to drive, following directions that you entrust to a computer and bought through a bank whose computers you let control your money.

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MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, grisly images, and language

Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo

Credits: Written and directed by Leigh Whannell. A Blumhouse release.

Running time: 1:40

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