Upload review: This Amazon Prime Original has an interesting premise, but fails to be thoroughly intelligent
The premise and world of Upload is endlessly fascinating and visually engaging but it soon blows up into a show in search of a unique creative voice.
Greg Daniels, former director and writer of The Simpsons and The Office, and the co-creator of Parks & Recreation, looks to update his stellar resume with his latest show Upload, which he has created, written, executive produced, and directed six episodes of.
The narrative is set in a futuristic world of 2033, and revolves around Nathan (Robbie Amell), a software entrepreneur who gets borderlined killed in a car accident. His girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) goads him into signing an agreement; instead of getting operated on to live an incomplete life, he consents to be an 'upload.'
An 'upload' is a programmed extension of a human into an artificial world of their choice. If they may choose, they will be 'uploaded' to the world they agree to pay for. Nathan is a middle-class American but his uber-rich girlfriend insists to sponsor his 'afterlife.' He gets uploaded to Lakeview, an afterlife for the ultra rich. He can still communicate with the world he leaves behind via audio or video call. And if they have the money, his friends or relatives can visit him with the use of a virtual reality-style eye set.
Right from the word go, Upload is a deliriously fascinating world. It benefits from both the smooth VFX and the imaginative writing of the show. But for a show with a rich vision of what a man-made afterlife would look like, the storytelling seems a little dated, not only for 2033 but for now as well.
It takes as many as eight writers (all of which, save Daniels, have written only one episode) to develop a show that is as disoriented as its protagonist about the direction it should head in. At times, it is a fish-out-of-water slice-of-life drama where the protagonist is discovering a day in the life of an upload. This is where the narrative is the most surefooted, and the creator's grip on the story seems to be tight.
But at other times, it is a romantic comedy involving Nathan and his angel (that is what the caretaker in Lakeview is called) Nora, played by Andy Allo. It becomes a love triangle between the the real-life girlfriend Ingrid, the virtual-life angel Nora, and the man literally stuck between, Nathan, an upload.
In the hands of a skilled editor and one decisive writer, Upload could have been just a film. But the eight writers, and the three directors, stretch the narrative till it snaps. Though the first half of the show is more exciting, the world-building takes too long to get the 'plot' started.
The truth is there should not have been any plot per say, whether in the form of a rom-com or a suspense drama. The premise itself entails endless possibilities, just like the prospect of uploading one's soul into an artificial afterlife.
What keep the show going despite the underwhelming long-form writing are the performances. Amell, who was earlier seen in The Flash, gets a well-deserved upgrade as the leading man. He is sincere, and has disarming charm. While the clunky writing disappoints him, he rarely looses grip on the conflict of his character. But he should not have been reduced to merely an object of desire, and should have been allowed to tell a story of is own. He is as helpless to the circumstances in the show as is his character in the larger narrative.
Allo makes for a parallel protagonist one can root for. She channelises the fate of her character with relatable fragility accurately but also displays enough endurance for the audience to root for her misadventures. Edwards also does complete justice to her rich-b*tch persona, and gives the audience something to think about by challenging their perception of her towards the end of the show.
Technically, the show does much better in keeping stuff less strained, and yet sufficiently layered. Production designer Rachel O' Toole does not go all The Jetsons on Upload, and makes Lakeview an accurate depiction of what such a world could look like 13 years down the line. It has been designed as a technologically advanced form of a seven-star hotel. The hotel staff, created by Artificial Intelligence in the show, feels as inaccessible as the overly formal staff at the plush hotels of today.
Costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager and music director Joseph Stephens keep their contribution in line with the current taste rather than thinking 'fashion-forward' and turning to techno cliches. Simon Chapman's cinematography works in tandem with the VFX department to paint a seamless whole.
The technical prowess and the ingenious world-building help to make Upload less artificial. But given how the narrative moves ahead and stoops down to conformity, it ceases to be consistently intelligent.
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