Shutdown cinema review: The surprisingly subversive Upload

“I’m not even supposed to be here,” Nathan Brown laments at one point as he morosely explores the man-made afterlife in Amazon Prime’s new comic-mystery series Upload. I felt the same way a few times over the ten-episode series, both for its somewhat uneven comic balance, as well as a bit of woke didactic along the way. However, the series proves surprisingly engaging — and surprisingly subversive, in its own fashion.

Upload starts off with the death of Nathan (Robbie Amell) in 2033 and his rebirth into Lakeview, a tony, top-dollar virtual reality for the recently departed. The circumstances of Nathan’s death — and the sudden way his fiancée Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) pushed him to give up and upload to the man-made afterlife — provide the main crux of the mystery that Nathan must unravel from the Not So Great Beyond. Nathan had been working on a similar product, but someone keeps stealing his memories so that he can’t recall what precisely happened to him. Can his “angel” Nora (Andy Allo), a customer service rep, help him find out the truth — and will Nathan like what he finds?

It’s tough to get a read on Upload at first. Initially, and off and on throughout, it keeps making denigrating references to capitalism, and it passes on no opportunity to flog that theme, which quickly gets tiresome. The nadir of that effort comes in the form of superbillionaire “David Choak,” a most unimaginative (and extremely unfair) reference to the recently passed libertarian industrialist and philanthropist David Koch. Choak doesn’t turn out to be all bad — even though he has clearly taken it all with him in the end and plans to get even more when he can. Other political themes get a lighter, more subtle touch, and one has to wish that they had taken that approach more consistently.

None of that is particularly subversive or surprising, especially in the context of today’s entertainment environment. What does seem subversive is the unmistakable pro-religion thread running through Upload. One of the most sympathetic characters in the series, Nora’s terminally ill father Dave (Chris Williams), refuses to engage “Horizen,” the firm where Nora works because he argues that the man-made environments are soulless. Dave is one of the “Ludds,” the slang term used by upload advocates about their critics (Luddites, obviously), and they appear to get blamed for actions taken by the powers that be behind the upload industry. Dave tries to get his daughter to understand that her mother, long since deceased, is in the actual afterlife with God, the real heaven to which Dave aspires.

Even beyond that, though, Upload has another subversive element to it, which may or may not be intentional. What becomes apparent is that humans cannot build Utopia, not even in a virtual afterlife, and especially not in the real world. Even Lakeview, which is the top of the line upload experience, has errors and flaws, gaps which get exploited by the customers, and manipulations by those in the real world. The relationship between Nathan and Ingrid provides the best example of this, but to say more would be to get into spoilers. Horizen and its Lakeview “matrix,” and uploading in general are the ultimate in social engineering, and it just doesn’t work. If it weren’t for the occasional nudity, sexual situations, and adult language, one might have thought that it was the covert project of *gasp* committed Christians. And its highlighting of the spiritual essence of humanity and the shortcomings of man-made utopias serves to either balance or undermine the show’s clear leaning toward socialism, whether or not the creators intended that outcome.

Maybe we should pretend we haven’t noticed, at least not until they produce Season Two.

Upload sometimes gets lost in those contradictions, and at times the subplots and comic relief seems a little forced, but by the end of the first season it works pretty well. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for original content in these shelter-in-place days, viewers could do much worse than give Upload a try.

On the Hot Air scale for subscription-service series, Upload gets a 3:

4 – Subscribe to the service to watch this
3 – Make time to watch it if you already subscribe
2 – Worth a watch if nothing else appeals
1 – Avoid at all costs

Upload is rated TV-MA for very good reasons, including a couple of surprisingly graphic scenes of violence. It’s not for the kids or younger teens, but your older teens might be mature enough to deal with it.

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