Streaming Service: Amazon Prime
CSM Rating: 16+
FCC Rating: TV-MA
Reel Rating: 2 Reels out of 5
Like most teachers around the country, these past few months I had to quickly learn how to run my classes remotely. Similarly, my mother’s extended family began a weekly Zoom meeting, my therapist went digital, and of course churches live-streamed in lieu of in-person services. While this left me craving non-toddler human contact, some economists and educators predicted this pandemic will irreversibly put life on the web.
The Amazon Prime original series Upload imagines a future where not only this existence is lived virtually, but the next as well. While crafted as a comedy by Greg Daniels of The Office, its real world – and quite believable – implications are not that funny.
Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) is your typical jerky twentysomething tech millionaire who seems to have it all: he is handsome, has an beautiful girlfriend, and is only days away from launching a revolutionary software program that everyone wants. One fateful night, he is critically injured when his self-driving car crashes into a truck. Rather than continue living, Nathan – somewhat unwillingly – agrees to be “uploaded.” This process involves converting his consciousness into a digital avatar, although it destroys the brain as a result. The new Nathan wakes up in Lakeview, an online hotel/afterlife filled with other dead people. Guiding him is Nora (Andy Allo), his “Angel” who works for Lakeview and oversees his comfort. As Nathan navigates this new reality, Nora develops a crush on him and soon discovers some strange discrepancies surrounding his death. With Nora as his eyes and ears in the real world, Nathan will attempt to discover the truth behind his situation, uncovering a larger conspiracy in the process.
Before continuing, one issue needs to be immediately resolved; sadly, it receives little attention from the series itself. The Nathan Brown of Lakeview is not the same Nathan Brown from our world. The real Nathan Brown is … somewhere else. This Nathan Brown is a series of 1s and 0s on a hard drive; it acts and thinks like Nathan, but it is only a program. In the entire first season, this fact is only mentioned once in a brief exchange between Nathan and a potential client considering uploading, Nora’s father Dave (Chris Williams):
Nathan: “Digital life extension is not what you expect. It’s not real life, and it’s not Heaven.”
Client: “No, it’s not. You see, Nathan, when you died, your soul went to the real Heaven. So, whatever simulation I’m talking to now has no soul. It’s an abomination.”
Nathan: “Okay. Or, there is no soul, and there never was. And, in a sense, both of our consciousness are simulations. Mine on a silicon computer, and yours on a computer made of meat, your brain.”
It is a well-written exchange, but the implications are dire. If Nathan had a soul, then that soul is not in Lakeview. If he didn’t, then this new Nathan and every human who ever lived is just a random series of neurons without any larger purpose. There is, however, an important reason the audience must believe Nathan. From a storytelling perspective, the two Nathans must be the same individual. The audience needs to care that Nora finds Nathan’s killer. We must like Nathan and desire his justice. No one cares if a computer gets unplugged and a game goes unsaved. We care if a loved one dies. It was unnerving to buy into this philosophy, but I allowed it for the sake of the story, and only for that sake. In the real world, computers will never be spirits.
Upload succeeds best when it examines the economic shortcomings of an increasingly digital world. Nathan was told Lakeview would be Heaven, but never has an afterlife had so many strings. Per his will, Nathan’s girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) controls access to his account. Everything in Lakeview, from the bedsheets to the donuts, has a price. If Nathan ever irritates Ingrid, she can cut off his spending. Beyond Nathan, there is a larger problem. In a world dominated by Internet access, the disparity between rich and poor only widens. In the basement of Lakeview live avatars who can only afford the barest existence and go into hibernation when their monthly data is up. One child can only read a few pages of a book at a time before shutting down.
And what of real relationships and physical contact? Nora is desperate for human connection but lives her whole life behind a screen. All her dates come through Tinder; all her work occurs online. Her only real-world relationship is with her father, who is dying. She desperately wants him to upload so she can be with him forever. Yet it is not forever. Eventually, the company folds. Eventually, the power goes out. Dave is excited by the prospect of going to Heaven and being with his deceased wife, which Nora just dismisses as “creepy.” Nathan also tries to continue a relationship with Ingrid, which requires her to wear a “sex suit” to enter Lakeview’s mainframe. The show wisely avoids details. The rendezvous clearly does not satisfy him, and he goes back to Nora again and again.
Despite some positive aspects, Upload seems oddly and irrationally optimistic about the future of the virtual world. The system itself is never criticized, only its inadequacies. No doubt Nathan would justify Lakevieww’s problems by pointing out that space and matter also have their own difficulties. True enough. Yet, watching my toddlers and their physiological struggles over the past few months have convinced me that this movement cannot be healthy. Real people have souls and need flesh-and-blood contact. Thus, as a story, Upload was entertaining. As a philosophical treatise, it was horrifying.
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