'Upload' on Amazon tackles capitalism and the afterlife — with a surprisingly hopeful message

Capitalism works by convincing us that existence is only meaningful if it's profitable. But "Upload's" characters figure out that life always has worth.
Image: Robbie Amell in Upload
The afterlife is a complicated place in "Upload."Courtesy of Amazon Studios
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By Noah Berlatsky

In pop culture, eternal life is almost always a bad thing.

In the final season of the afterlife sitcom "The Good Place," an eternity of happiness makes heaven unbearably tedious. In the AMC drama "Preacher," the undying Irish vampire Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) is filled with boredom and self-loathing after a mere century or so of extended existence. Netflix's "Altered Carbon" is set in a future which has developed the tech to digitize consciousness; people can live on and on in different bodies. But the show's revolutionary protagonists argue that extended life is corrupting. It's death, supposedly, which makes us human.

The show's revolutionary protagonists argue that extended life is corrupting. It's death, supposedly, which makes us human.

No wonder that during the coronavirus pandemic, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, among others, suggested that the elderly should be willing to die to save the economy. In narrative after narrative, longer life is portrayed, not as a gift, but as a downer.

The new Amazon Prime series "Upload" at first seems to fit into this skeptical tradition. The show, helmed by "Parks and Recreation" writer Greg Daniels, is set in a near future in which humans can upload themselves into a virtual reality afterlife after death. When app developer Nathan (Robbie Amell) is killed in a driverless car accident, his wealthy girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) pays to have his consciousness sent to the luxurious resort-like Lakeview.

Lakeview is supposed to be heaven, but Nathan quickly discovers it's anything but. The red-headed bellhops are all identical and aggressively, creepily friendly. Breakfast disappears instantaneously if you don't get to the table by 10. Nathan's hair has been misprogrammed so he can't comb it. He has odd, unexplained gaps in his memory. Just like in real life, digital heaven has a full complement of annoying, everyday glitches.

The real problem with Lakeview though, isn't the minor annoyances or the uncanny discomfort of being stuck forever in a luxury resort. The real problem is capitalism.

Lakeview is created by "capitalism's unholy alliance with big data," as one character comments. Everything in the digital world costs money — from better golf clubs, to snacks, to phone calls to the living. Nathan isn't wealthy himself; Ingrid pays for everything, and can simply delete him if he's insufficiently grateful. Other residents are in even tougher spots. On the 2G floor, those who were uploaded on a strict budget live in bleak, one-room cubicles, where they're charged extra not just for food and phone calls, but for thinking too much. When they run out of money, they go grey and freeze. It isn't eternity which leaches the joy out of life in "Upload." It's poverty.

In fact, Nathan's plight in Lakeview isn't so different from that of his customer service representative Nora (Andy Allo) back in the real world. Within Lakeview, Nora is powerful. Her official title is "angel" and in the digital world she can (literally) walk on water and fix Nathan's recalcitrant hair. In real life, though, she's a call center flunky, bullied by a flamboyantly callous boss whose idea of a joke is to promise a bonus and then withdraw it. Just as Nathan has to kowtow to Ingrid so he can keep getting amenities like showers, clothes and food, Nora has to kowtow to Nathan and her other Lakeview charges to get good five-star service ratings so she can get an employee discount on an upload for her sick father. In "Upload" everyone is trying to ingratiate themselves with everyone else, scrabbling for capitalist crumbs — everyone except for the mega-wealthy like Ingrid's father, who can be as abrasive and awful as they want.

Inequality and injustice make the afterlife as frustrating and cruel as life on earth. But that doesn't mean Nathan would be better off dead. Though he experiences some initial despair, he and Nora quickly become friends, and then (as Nathan's relationship with Ingrid sours) more than friends. Amell's cocky smugness never exactly stops being irritating, but Nathan and Nora have a delightful chemistry even if it is tempered by a lack of resources. At one point, Nathan gives Nora a pebble as a gift, because he can't buy her anything. It doesn't take much to make life and love seem worth pursuing in perpetuity, in Lakeview, or anywhere.

In "Upload" everyone is trying to ingratiate themselves with everyone else, scrabbling for capitalist crumbs.

Nathan's lost his old life and a lot of his autonomy. He no longer has control of his old tech company, having sex with Ingrid is complicated and involves uncomfortable technology; Ingrid even chooses his clothes. The show doesn't push the analogy, but the parallels with disability, or with old age, are clear enough. Despite the humiliation and discomfort, however, Nathan still finds value in Lakeview. He has new experiences, finds new friends, discovers new meaning. "Even if we last for 1000 years here, it's gonna feel short when it's over and we're out of time with the people we care about," he muses. "I think that's what really matters."

More life is better — which then begs the question, why are some allowed more life and others are not? Before he died, Nathan was trying to create technology that would make uploads affordable for everyone. That challenge to a multi-billion industry made him a target, and possibly led to his death. In "Upload," the wealthy make afterlife access a privilege, just like health care still is a privilege in America.

Capitalism works by convincing us that existence is only meaningful if it's profitable. But Nathan and Nora figure out that life always has worth. The trick isn't figuring out when to end it. It's building a world humane enough that people want to live forever.