Creator: Greg Daniels
Cast: Robbie Amell, Andy Allo, Allegra Edwards, Zainab Johnson
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Upload opens with an American telecom advert in the year 2033. The hospitality video shows Horizen, a sardonic stand-in for Verizon, presenting the sights and sounds of Lake View – a fairytale-style virtual-reality (VR) resort for those who can afford an unlimited data “afterlife” plan. Much of the ten-episode series unfurls at Lake View, where the 27-year-old protagonist Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) is uploaded by his wealthy girlfriend (Allegra Edwards) after dying in a freak car accident. Uploads can alter their skyline with a click of a button, while humans in the real world reveal virtual devices with a flick of their palms, travel in self-driving cars, and engage agents that provide guided afterworld tours for dying clients. It consistently amazes me how storytellers continue to be so scientifically optimistic about evolution. At one point, 2001 was the tech-savvy future in the movies, but it’s now 2020 and I can barely get my cellphone to function properly during a global pandemic.
Seconds after the advert, we see Nora (the endearing Andy Allo), who is soon to be Nathan’s Horizen “angel” (customer service executive), on the New York City Subway. The compartment is crammed with commuters, but for a brief beat, Nora is blissfully consumed by the screen of the lady next to her. The movie: 50 First Dates. She gets lost in the scene where Adam Sandler’s Henry is singing “Forgetful Lucy” to Drew Barrymore’s Lucy. Suddenly Nora’s stop arrives, snapping her out of her reverie. On a narrative level, 50 First Dates is not a random nod. The wishful story – of a Hawaiin womanizer (Sandler) falling in love with a girl (Barrymore) who loses her memory at the end of every day – finds an echo later in Upload. Once Nathan and Nora forge an unlikely connection, they reach a point where a system update is likely to wipe out Nathan’s Lake View memories. An episode ends with a tantalizing twist: Will Nora have to win Nathan’s trust all over again after every update?
There’s also the class commentary embedded into the show’s optics. Not even death is free of discrimination
But Upload also has a deeper link to the 2004 Valentine’s Day original. 50 First Dates was one of the first Hollywood films to successfully frame a high-concept premise as a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy. Most filmmakers find it difficult to resist the temptation of extending a novel idea into something serious and heavy-handed. After all, “timeless love story” tends to mean more than “goofy romance” – one is construed as cinematic, the other is dismissed as cutesy. Even as the audience, we are conditioned to remember a Minority Report but only smile at the playful infancy of The Jetsons. But director Peter Segal used Adam Sandler’s brand of irreverent humour to make the gimmick accessible, thereby tripping unsuspecting viewers into a pond more profound than the run-of-the-mill rom-com.
Creator Greg Daniels pulls off a similar sensibility heist with Upload, whose audacious universe might have urged viewers to expect the sensitive, futuristic gravitas of Her. Instead, Upload wears a slapstick-sitcom exterior, turning Nathan and Nora’s tale into a breezy and deceptively smart Silicon Valley-style comedy. The characters are inherently idiosyncratic to fit the over-the-top-ness of modern capitalism. Given that Upload is a series, it can’t afford to rely solely on the bleeding-heart bond between a human and an upload. As a result, the “thriller” thread – in which the two race to uncover a conspiracy that might have led to Nathan’s murder – clumsily assumes precedence over the central chemistry of the inter-spatial lovebirds. The cloak-and-dagger treatment, too, is tonally eccentric in a sort of Tim Burton way; it insists on retaining a cartoonish palette to suggest how consumerism is, at its core, the most satirical genre of human nature.
Perhaps most remarkable about Update is that it rarely sacrifices its soul to showboat an impressively designed body. There’s a sense of humanity about its magic realism
The inventiveness of Upload, then, is not all that far fetched. The casual touches that flesh out 2033 remain intellectually imaginative across ten episodes. The charm never really wears off, because it plays out like a hybrid of parodying the future while simultaneously marvelling at it. Nathan’s Lake View afterworld has plenty of witty after-puns: A 100-year-old lady strutting about as a monochromatic young woman after basing her avatar on an old black-and-white picture, a 12-year-old boy dead for six years dealing with 18-year-old hormones, the hotel concierges as red-haired AI bots, a “grey market” for the illegal sale of human devices, annoying Apple-style product placements popping up at every corner, a sex suit (like the sex surrogate of Her) for humans to get physically intimate with their beloved uploads. Moreover, every time we see two people from opposite ends of the life spectrum doing dreamy things together, the show instantly cuts to the humans enacting these moments wearing VR goggles in a stuffy room. (A post-coital nap reveals a sex-suit-clad human asleep in a bathtub). This visual discord occurs as a recurring theme to remind us that emotions like joy and grief and pleasure rarely have their roots in the real world these days. The future, as we know it, is here.
But what’s perhaps most remarkable about Update is that it rarely sacrifices its soul to showboat an impressively designed body. There’s a sense of humanity about its magic realism. Take, for instance, the moral conflict of the upload culture, which is essentially a virtual version of the ventilator culture. Families and loved ones pay for the afterlife of the deceased so that they don’t have to experience the painful permanence of letting go – it’s an act of self-preservation, aimed at appeasing the living rather than offering peace to the dying. The uploads think they’re choosing digital paradise, but they remain the same age for eternity, or at least for as long as their monthly bills are paid. And they watch haplessly, like the 12-year-old boy does, as their humans eventually move on while keeping them “alive” for selfish reasons. Nathan, too, quickly realises that he is at his girlfriend’s whims and mercy, even as Nora becomes the virtual equivalent of his caring nurse.
The moral conflict of the upload culture is essentially a virtual version of the ventilator culture. Families and loved ones pay for the afterlife of the deceased so that they don’t have to experience the painful permanence of letting go
Another example is the situation of Nora’s father. The man has a chronic lung ailment, and Nora plans to use her employee discount privilege to upload him onto Lake View. But the man is torn between a virtual afterlife and a spiritual one, because he is convinced that his late wife – who was never uploaded – is waiting for him in heaven. Consequently, one entire episode is dedicated to him being awkwardly guided around Lake View by Nathan so that Nora can convince him of the benefits. The episode is funny, but its beating heart is audible. The sad desperation of Nora is palpable: She’s lost her mother forever, but she doesn’t want to lose her father. There’s also the class commentary embedded into the show’s optics. Not even death is free of discrimination: The bottom section of the Lake View hotel, like the Titanic, is called the 2 GB floor. Those unable to afford the plush suites “live” under limited data plans here, constantly losing data for activities like thinking and eating, and running the risk of being frozen once their plan expires.
However, there’s one specific scene that best encapsulates the disarming adolescence of Upload. Nathan and his girlfriend, Ingrid, finally get down to having sex in his afterlife. But for some reason, he can’t get it up. She yells for “customer support” – apparently, every problem can be fixed. On cue, Nora appears. By now, they’ve developed dormant feelings for each other. Nathan is mortified. While Ingrid gets distracted by her cat, Nora slides her finger down his chest – it’s both her duty and her desire. It works. The scene is played for laughs (Nora even jokingly narrates it to her co-worker), but the tenderness of their private little rush is unmistakable. In a parallel universe, this is their unforgettable declaration-of-love gesture. Upload, just like this moment, is played for easy laughs. But the series is memorable – precisely because it refuses to be.