In 2033, people who are near death can be “uploaded” into virtual reality hotels run by 6 tech firms. Cash-strapped Nora lives in Brooklyn and works customer service for the luxurious “Lakeview” digital afterlife. When L.A. party-boy/coder Nathan’s self-driving car crashes, his high-maintenance girlfriend uploads him permanently into Nora’s VR world.
Platform: Amazon Prime
Movie Rated: 16+
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
It’s a choc-a-clock week for those looking for new shows to stream and Amazon’s newest offering ‘Upload’ is a welcome addition to the choices. One can’t help but start analysing this high-concept show by comparing it to showrunner Greg Daniels’ previous work (which it does bear some resemblance with while not being derivative) - The Office US and Parks and Recreation. Both these long-running sitcoms have a significant fan following and that is within reason. They are smart, insightful, quirky, hilariously satirical and gloriously binge-worthy. Upload comes close to the kind of show that could not just check all these boxes but also gain a niche fandom while at it in the future.
In the year 2033, ‘heaven’ is a ‘digital life extension’ run by six of the world’s biggest corporations. The advancement in technology has enabled humans to ‘upload’ their lives (personalities, identities, consciousness and memories) into a simulation system which enables them to essentially live forever even after their mortal death. This simulation has a digital connect to their life in the actual world as well, complete with video chatting, virtual reality goggles, sensor gloves and sex suits.
When Nathan (Robbie Amell)’s self-driving car crashes mysteriously, he finds himself at the elite Lakeview (the heaven chosen for him by his girlfriend Ingrid) provided by Horizen. Horizen provides each inhabitant with an alive human customer care representative AKA ‘angel.’ For Nathan, that is Nora (Andy Allo) from the New York office. As the series moves forward, Nora gets more embroiled into the circumstances behind Nathan’s death. But it is really their connection with each other that is both the emotional and the romantic core of the story.
Set in yet another version of the afterlife (recently NBC’s The Good Place and Amazon’s Forever have also explore a similar idea), Upload combines several genres - it a an observation-based futuristic sci-fi series, mixed with sweet romantic comedy, and also a murder mystery. Perhaps what it hasn’t been able to balance just yet is the attention to each of these elements, which keeps it from being perfect. But its unique style even with the repetitive setting makes it worthy of a watch. Unlike these two shows, however, Upload isn’t geared towards presenting a modern outlook on the philosophy of existentialism. What it is most interested in is how our growing dependence on technology for connection is feeding into the world’s capitalist mindset.
Life in the afterlife is as much a human right as much as it is a human want. Humans choose to upload themselves but this choice comes with a hefty price. Those who can afford the best packages, get to pick the best locations, are served the best food, get premium-level staff and hospitality, and unlimited data (do what they want, connect with as many people as they want). Drinks at the bar are hideously overpriced, much like any other in-app purchase. And now that Horizen has a brand tie-up with Taco Bell, inhabitants have to listen to their angels give them a mandatory recommendation of their newest burrito to fill their daily quota. At one point, Nathan visits the downgrade area - ‘2gig.’ True to its name, people live on 2 gigabytes of data, after which they freeze over and their simulation will only get back into gear once the month ends. Nathan’s ‘funeral’ is sponsored by L’Oreal. Other afterlives are owned by Disney (what isn’t?), Facebook and Nat Geo (being the cheapest, set in the wild, with the worst technology). Inhabitants get mind-numbingly annoying pop ups on their face as they walk around. The software is updated sometimes. There are glitches. Across the whole series, there are several subtle and not-so-subtle comments on consumerism and social inequality, usually in the form of jokes and gags.
Robbie Amell’s fine performance as the disappointed and confused yet ever-charming Nathan is central to Upload’s love story as if to counteract Nora's calm and composed demeanour. It is as if Eleanor and Janet formed a bond with each other, where the latter doesn’t as much ‘know everything’ as she can provide emotional support to her human in every way possible. Allo plays that part like an everyman. While focus is on Amell’s good looks and physique, Allo is no less sexy, and the fact that these two people are attracted to each other makes complete sense. What is unfortunate is that we rush through their romance, especially when Nathan’s flawed relationship with his socialite heiress girlfriend is much more delicious and more relevant to his death. Not to take away from the chemistry between the lead pair, but one wonders if there would be enough burning romance in the second season to propel that plot forward.
This is one of Upload’s major drawback in its first season. Nathan and Nora can’t be together because, essentially, Nathan is dead. And the show’s hero shows little concern over why that happened, while the heroine cares a bit too much about it. There are characters who come in and go out with regard to the murder, but it is treated almost too nonchalantly in the beginning. By the time it becomes central to the story, the audience is highly underconfident of the gravitas in the conspiracy. Honestly, as distracting and exhausting as it is sometimes… all that tech talk, literally seeing life as a mobile phone, we would much rather watch two people in an unlikely star-crossed romance with those things being what keeps them apart than potentially murderous businessmen. That is what Black Mirror has done so masterfully so far.
Upload starts off with great self-assuredness of what it intends to be. There’s a lot of backstory and exposition in the first episode (at around 45 minutes). Each episode that follows is closer to a half-hour sitcom format but gets more and more confused as to what genre to follow. The thriller is not enough to hold attention and there is a lack of balance between the quirkiness of its setting and the personal stakes that drive the character’s motivations (unlike The Good Place). Episode 10 has left us at an intriguing cliffhanger but it is only next year that we would see if the writing has improved in this regard.
For all its worth, the sheer concept gives the show ample opportunity to play with some unique details about what life would be in the future, where everything is run by mega corporations, access to calls and video is via holograms, every tangible item is created by 3D printers. It is a more cynical approach to the life we are headed towards but not that far-fetched as one is exposed to it. All this free time in lockdown has given us the opportunity to think about our existence as a social (and technological) construct. And even if depressingly so, it is always plausible that as technology is the only way we stay together and sane, it becomes completely indispensable with time. Whether good or bad, is a matter of perspective. At the moment, we just laugh at the idea.
Music and Other Departments:
Focusing on the here-and-now-future, Upload is highly creative visually. Simulations are based on imagination making Lakeview an idyllic setting for all the AI that it holds. Meanwhile, back on the physical plane, LA and New York are pristine even as swanky Google cars fill up the streets. Transitions into holograms are seamless and innovative. The world is perfect - clean and stunning, almost unreal. Some smart camerawork, however, reveals its imperfections depending on whose perspective it is working from. The show also has an interesting modern soundtrack.
Did I Enjoy It?
Yes. Upload is something like a tech overload in the ‘middle place.’ It is neither too comforting nor entirely dismissive of the future. It is sharp and astutely observed, and I see serious potential for the next season.
Would I Recommend It?
Yes. Upload makes for light-hearted fare in a borrowed setup and you can surely invest in a couple of initial episodes to see if it matches your sensibilities.