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It’s a wonderful afterlife: smart, funny Upload is a sheer delight

Screenshot from Upload trailer
Enlarge / Nathan (Robbie Amell) is impressed with the digital afterlife service so far on Upload, now streaming on Amazon Prime.
YouTube/Amazon Studios

A cocky tech-bro discovers that living forever in a digital afterlife isn’t quite the paradise he’d envisioned in Upload, a new comedy series from Amazon Prime Video. When the trailer first dropped in March, I pointed out the strong The Good Place vibes, which set a very high bar for any new comedy dealing with the afterlife. Fortunately, Upload is a sheer delight in its own right: smart, funny, warm-hearted, and perfectly paced, trading in The Good Place‘s witty takes on moral philosophy for more of an emphasis on class-based social hierarchies.

(Some spoilers below.)

Series creator Greg Daniels—best known for his work on The Office, Parks and Recreation, and King of the Hill—purportedly came up with the concept many years ago while working as a staff writer on Saturday Night Live, although Amazon didn’t green-light the pilot until 2017, ordering a full ten-episode series the following year. It’s definitely got something of that Parks and Recreation vibe. Per the official premise: “In the near future, people who are near death can be ‘uploaded’ into virtual reality environments. Cash-strapped Nora works customer service for the luxurious ‘Lakeview’ digital afterlife. When party-boy/coder Nathan’s car crashes, his girlfriend uploads him into Nora’s VR world.”

Robbie Amell (Code 8) plays Nathan,  who is on the verge of closing a huge business deal with his friend and business partner, Jamie (Jordan Johnson-Hinds, Blindspot).  But then his self-driving car malfunctions and crashes, landing Nathan on a hospital gurney, in critical condition. His wealthy girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards, Briarpatch) urges him to take the “upload” option over surgery. “We could be together forever!” she enthuses. Nathan is less keen: “Forever is just soooo long.” But he ends up taking the upload anyway and wakes up in a virtual apartment. “This is the first day of the rest of your afterlife,” Nora (Andy Allo, Chicago Fire) calmly assures him.

There are myriad advantages to a digital afterlife, Nathan discovers, like being able to change the weather and associated landscape outside one’s window just by turning a knob. He feels freer to make some daring virtual fashion choices, with Ingrid’s input. He even manages to make a couple of unlikely friends: Dylan (Rhys Slack, Legends of Tomorrow), who died when he was on the verge of puberty and whose family refuses to upgrade his avatar to an adult body; and Luke (Kevin Bigley, Sirens), a veteran who is having some trouble adjusting to his digital afterlife.

But there are also drawbacks. The complimentary breakfast is only served in a limited time frame. (“It’s not even real food!” Nathan laments when the contents of his plate automatically vanish before he has a chance to virtually eat them.) Plus, Lakeview’s staff counselor insists on chatting with him through a golden retriever avatar. (“It’s only weird if you make it weird.”)

Also, Ingrid controls the purse strings—Nathan can’t even access the mini-bar in his room since it requires an In-App purchase and the passcode—and isn’t above occasionally exploiting that advantage to get Nathan to do what she wants. He begins to suspect his death may not have been an accident. And his burgeoning friendship with his “angel,” Nora, might just be developing into something more.

Keeping it real

The series presented an unusual challenge for VFX supervisor Marshall Krasser (whose many credits include Galaxy Quest), since there are plenty of digital effects—around 25 minutes’ worth in the pilot alone—yet Daniels was adamant that the effects should never detract from the story. Scenes set in the meat world (New York and Los Angeles, respectively) had to tread a fine line between recognizable realism and believable near-futuristic technology, such as self-driving cars and bicycles.

“Everything we did was to help sell the future,” Krasser told Ars. For instance people use holographic wrist phones in lieu of cell phones, all of which had to be hand-tracked. “Basically, the actor would keep their hand in that position, which is probably unconformable for that long period of time,” said Krasser. “Then we would lock it in, track it, and add it in digitally.”  A robot arm serving as a cashier in a convenience store was an entirely digital effect (no animatronics), and the initial version was such a winsome character that Daniels requested it be toned down to keep the scene more grounded in reality.

For a scene in the pilot where Nathan is pulled over by a traffic cop—actually a drone, with the officer communicating electronically via  screen—the team digitally recreated the Los Angeles background rather than try to shoot on location, when timeline anachronisms could creep in. For the New York scenes, Krasser’s team looked up the city’s construction plans for the future and tried to incorporate those into their depictions.

Meanwhile, the digital afterlife was designed to look almost hyper-real, with a touch of the “uncanny valley” effect so viewers have the sense that things are just a little bit off.  “When we’re in the ‘real world,’ there’s more handheld [camerawork], and when we moved into the digital world, we went with slow-moving shots, pans, and tilts,” said Krasser. “Greg wanted to establish the idea that the real world now was a dirty, gritty place, whereas the afterlife was a beautiful place where things are clean, crisp, and worry-free.” One running joke is that several elderly female Lakeview residents requested avatars based on how they looked in their youth. So their avatars are rendered in black and white, which required a great deal of rotoscoping on the part of the animators.

In a later episode, there’s a scene where the digital afterlife’s server degrades to the point where all the Lakeview residents are rendered in 1980s style computer graphics. (Krasser said he was particularly inspired by the music video for Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.“) “We could have just gone with de-rezzing, where everything is all pixelated, but where’s the humor in that?” he said. Instead, he opted for simplified caricatures of the actors, basing the animations on the actors’ movements and reactions (without resorting to motion capture).

The memorable characters and terrific performances across the board are the series’ greatest strengths. The versatile Amell has already demonstrated his action/thriller abilities with Code 8. He’s equally adept at comic timing, making Nathan—who could have just been another obnoxious tech-bro—a charming, warm, and likable character, despite his obvious flaws. He has great chemistry with Allo’s Nora. Bigley steals nearly every scene he’s in as Luke, whose emotional immaturity finds a match in the eternally pubescent Dylan—a standout performance from relative newcomer Slack. And it would have been so easy to let Ingrid just be a shallow, vain entitled rich girl, but the script and Edwards’ nuanced performance keep her from becoming pure caricature.

Upload is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and it’s eminently bingeable. The cliffhanger finale will definitely leave you wanting more.

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