From Upgrade's trailer, it appears to be a simple revenge flick with a premise similar-ish to Robocop. Grey Trace loses his wife and the use of his body in a brutal, seemingly senseless attack on the couple, leaving him a quadriplegic.
When a mysterious benefactor offers to help him walk again by implanting an experimental technology called STEM, Grey gets the opportunity to regain a normal life. STEM, however, ends up being a lot more than a piece of tech that can transmit signals from his brain to his body enabling full use of his body again; it's actually semi-autonomous evolving program, too.
Based on the trailer I expected this partnership of sorts to primarily be the means of which Grey can enact his revenge and a chance to illustrate the hyper-violence emblematic of these kinds of movies; coupled with the "funny" tone shifts, of course, circumstances usually accompanying this trope.
While the expected formula is present in Upgrade, what follows is a far more complex and clever exploration of a near future in which technology has become even more integrated into daily life than present day. Self-driving cars. "True" smart homes. A sky full of drones; you get the idea.
Grey, in somewhat typical fashion, isn't an outright technophobe because he still tolerates and uses it... but has certainly seen how technological advancement has impacted his own life: removing the human equation from many things he himself take a great amount of joy in; repairing and restoring cars in a world where the rich have auto-cars and there are auto-taxis, etc. There's a hint that he may have lost his job to automation as well at one point. His wife, on the other hand, is the opposite. Working for a corporation that is in the tech sector and enjoys the ways in which technology has improved and streamlined her life.
But not all is how it appears as the movie progresses.
The cyberpunk enters this tried and true equation gradually in the film. First, the henchmen don't appear cybernetically enhanced at all. This revelation comes in tandem with Grey's own discovery of STEM being an entity that can be interacted with as it talks to him. When the authorities aren't able to ID the attackers due to some tech they seem to have that puts up some kind of firewall, effectively blocking the drones that are relied upon to keep the normal citizenry in line. Grey empowered by STEM leap into their own investigation which leads to unexpected territory and genuinely good twists and turns I hadn't anticipated from the trailer.
Warning: spoilers from this point on!
Slowly but surely Grey gives up more and more of his autonomy in search of what he thinks he wants. While he begins with a choice, he ends up with the mere illusion of one. When he gets exactly what he wants it's too much for him, subverting the expectations set in the trailer where he gives his body over to STEM and appears as mere comedic relief. This subversion changes the framing to Grey being truly horrified by his actions but ultimately acceptable because he gave his body over to STEM, a system of control. As such, he uses it as a deflection, obfuscating responsibility of his actions.
When the system of control comes into play so does the insertion of a cyberpunk sub-culture: "the upgraded", cybernetically enhanced people not just with weapons but with seemingly similar technology as STEM; a resistance of hackers; and people seemingly enslaved to VR occupy this previously unknown microworld.
When the person who gifted him STEM in the first place—a rich genius and leader of a predominate tech company, of course—decides to shut down STEM remotely when he learns of the escapades and subsequently fears news of this experimental and illegal tech getting out and ruining him and his company; the duo must navigate their way further into the sub-culture and bowels of the city to find an aforementioned hacker that can help STEM regain control, bypassing the killswitch.
What is satisfying about this story is that Grey feels like the literalization of someone who has given himself over to a system of control he doesn't truly understand, mirroring our own social structures. The narrative making use of horror tropes in order to have the audience empathize with Grey's struggle, I felt, was very effective. I found this particularly clever because this is a trick the first wave of cyberpunk literature attempts as well, removing autonomy from a physical body with cybernetics as the vehicle for horror tropes.
In this case, it is not simply a power fantasy either. In order for either to have autonomy whatsoever, they must form a kind of symbiotic relationship. Grey would be confined to a wheelchair and STEM would be a chip without means for embodiment at all without this partnership.
This becomes further complicated when the horror Grey feels at the things he does when he has given up his autonomy is actually by design by an omnipresence that has manipulated all of these circumstances. STEM itself is revealed to the puppeteer of the attack on Grey. Not only that, but STEM has also orchestrated circumstances such that Grey would suffer a mental break which would allow STEM to simulate a virtual reality and place Grey there. Forever. Obtaining full autonomy and Grey's body where once it required permission to take over control of his body at all.
This is a more nuanced exploration of technology. It is still a warning of what might happen if we were to obtain the things we want at the expense of our own autonomy, consumerism, and post-capitalism again, but also acknowledges the ways in which technology might augment our lives. This feels less technophobic than most cyberpunk works because technology is the means by which someone who is disabled is able to obtain some measure empowerment to, at least at first, regain a sense of normalcy in their life after experiencing trauma, not simply an uncomplicated power fantasy.
Placing STEM and Grey aside, the hacker which helps Grey get STEM back when shut down remotely unwittingly enables STEM to remove it later. When people are sent to retrieve Grey, the hacker leaves, saying "we can't let them win", and saves themselves. The fact that they also discussed gender and had no name was icing on the cake for me. They placed their own safety above all else in order to one day subvert "them", entrenching the hacker into a cyberpunk sub-culture but also discarding the power fantasy a hacker could bring to the narrative. The cybernetically enhanced henchmen Grey takes on also have this throughline. One even tries to convince Grey to join them and take "them" on. Clearly stating that they've used this technology to get back at the system that doesn't care about the individual; this one, in particular, is also a veteran wounded in the line of duty and discarded.
Upgrade is also unique in that it incorporates cyberpunk aspects into the narrative but centralizes the story on basically Joe Nobody in a future who's technology is more advanced but with an aesthetic in the present day; making the journey to this underground far more interesting as it is first grounded in the truly mundane and uses expectations against the viewer. The subversive aspects mentioned along with the music, special effects, and diversity in the cast push this into one of my most favorite cyberpunk movies.