This is part of a series on Blumhouse horror films. The last entry on Hush is here.
The 2018 Blumhouse film Upgrade is, on the surface, a straightforward technophobic dystopia, which imagines machines first making us superfluous, and then subjugating us to their rule. Those fears, though, are stand-ins for bleaker ones. Technological and economic anxieties serve as a convenient excuse for worries about other kinds of progress. Machines are a scapegoat, which can be blamed for those typical human spurs to violence: racism, sexism, and fascism.
Upgrade is set in a near-future utopia/dystopia, in which many current techno-hopes have come to fruition. Sleek cars drive themselves and police monitor violence with a fleet of drones. Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is out of place in a world where machines are making human labor superfluous; he fixes classic (non-self-driving) cars and worries about how he'll earn a living as machines usurp more and more jobs. His wife, Asha, (Melanie Vallejo) works at a high-tech computer company, and is much more comfortable with the automated future.
The two of them deliver one of Grey's cars to tech genius Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). On the way back their car malfunctions, and when they crawl from the wreckage they’re attacked by thugs. Asha is murdered and Grey is shot in the spine; he becomes a quadriplegic. Eron, though, offers to provide Grey with new tech that’ll allow him to walk again. The computer upgrade, named STEM (voice of Simon Maiden) is also, as it turns out, sentient. It joins with Grey to take revenge on the people who murdered his wife.
In the final plot twist though, it turns out the murderer was STEM itself, which has arranged everything so it can have a human body of its own. After STEM has murdered his way through virtually the entire cast, the film ends with Grey trapped in a virtual reality fantasy inside his own head, and STEM in permanent control of his body.
For purposes of the narrative, STEM is a warning about the duplicitous allure of machines, which seem to make life easier, but are actually a decadent attraction, which cut you off from reality and leave you stranded in a life of irrelevant, happy horror.
But there are hints that the warning about machines as distraction is itself just a distraction. Early on in the movie, Grey and Asha joke about the fact that she makes more money than he does, and "wears the pants" in the family. Her casual rapport with technology means she earns more money than he does; as a woman of color (the actress is partly of Filipino descent) she's more at home in the future than is the salt-of-the-earth white working-class guy. The film's anxiety about computer takeover is also an anxiety about the displacement of white men—and Asha's death isn't just a tragedy, but a punishment. She didn't know her place; she has to die.
The movie doesn't say outright that Grey wants Asha dead. It doesn't say outright that Grey wants anyone dead. But its protestations to that effect become more elaborate and less believable as the film goes on.
After STEM is implanted in him, Grey goes on a Death Wish-like quest to punish her killers. But where Death Wish celebrates its law and order fascist violence, Upgrade purports to be horrified by it. In fight scenes, Grey gives full control of his body over to STEM, in order to become a combat machine. Grey begs his assailants to cease fighting even as his body tears them to shreds. It's STEM, not Grey, who murders his way through the machine-enhanced underclass. It's STEM, not Grey, who skins a black man, leaving his face a raw, wet, bloody mess. Grey’s an innocent passenger in his own body, looking away delicately as violence is perpetrated on his behalf.
STEM may kill marginalized people, but it also stands in for them. Robots were invented in Karel Čapek's 1920 play R.U.R., about the invention of artificial people who first relieve humans of all labor, and then overthrow them. The robots were a deliberate metaphor for serfs and enslaved people, and their rebellion was inspired by the threat of Communist revolution.
Upgrade, a century later, adopts the same tropes. STEM does everything for Grey; it moves his arms and legs; without its servitude, he’s immobilized. Yet, though STEM does all the work, it’s supposed to be completely obedient and servile. It has to do whatever Grey says—falling silent when he tells it to shut up, relinquishing control as soon as Grey tells it to. Its growing resistance is terrifying precisely because Grey relies on it to such an extent. If it decides to proceed on its own—by, for example, continuing to cut a man's face off after Grey asks it to cease—there's not much Grey can do about it. At one point he shouts at it to get out of his head, and it passive-aggressively ceases to operate, reducing him again to his quadriplegic state. "I'm not doing anything," it tells Grey when he demands to know what's happening. Withholding labor is a deadly threat.
The ultimate nightmare of a slave revolt is that the exploited will realize their own power, and use it to exploit in turn. And sure enough, the robot-enhanced humans Grey fights spout a eugenic quasi-fascist ideology. One villain, Fisk (Benedict Hardie), tells a human he murders that the man should be grateful to serve his computerized, evolutionarily superior betters. Notably, Fisk kills the guy by sneezing out tiny germ nano-assassins, which go into the human's nose and slices up his brains. The stereotype of poor, marginalized people spreading disease and filth
becomes a twisted mark of superiority, while remaining a frightening image of disgusting debasement. As in the anti-Semitic Nosferatu, or the work of racist writer H.P. Lovecraft, the rat-like predator is terrifying because it is simultaneously a lower life form and a higher one, a foul atavistic thing climbing from the muck to assert its dominance.
STEM, then, is a secret infiltrator—it’s the marginalized rabble creeping into power and seizing the rightful heritage of the clean, innocent, working-class white guys. But if you reject the conspiracy theory depths and look at what's actually happening on the surface, the culprit looks a bit different.
Grey blames his violent actions on the marginalized slave who dares to revolt; he insists he doesn't want to murder Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel), the black female police officer who’s been trying to find his wife's killers. He says that it’s STEM who pulls the trigger, and not him. But the Nazis also claimed Jewish people gave them no choice but genocide, just as Trump supporters say the unreasonable demands of women, black people, and immigrants make them vote for a racist authoritarian. Fascists always blame marginalized people for the violence they commit. That's what being a fascist is.
At the end of the film, Grey marches stiffly away from Cortez's body, moving with a precision that could be mechanical or military. His personality’s gone; he moves at the direction of a more powerful personality's iron will. By giving himself fully to the mechanism of history, he has regained his rightful position of mastery. Next comes genocide.