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Cassandra (Eva Angelina), a security agent in a cyberpunk near-future world, is being questioned by an internal investigator (Eli Cross) about her involvement in the upload of something called the Enigma file. Cassandra is not only cynical and disillusioned, but also addicted to illegal skin sims (that you “view” by plugging them into a port in your neck). The story of how she and her more clean-cut partner Michael (Derrick Pierce) become involved with the hacker Tesla (Hillary Scott) is told through a series of flashbacks intercut with scenes of her being questioned. We gradually learn more about Cassandra as a person, but also about Tesla, what the Enigma file really is, and about the intrigues surrounding it. While this would hardly be a great sci-fi film if you took out the sex, by porn standards its quality is amazing: it’s very well-scripted, the acting is generally good, the sets don’t look like sets, and both the camera-work and editing are excellent.
This being a four and half hour epic, the sex scenes are both many and long. The first one is an intense threesome with Cassandra and a couple of informants (Sandra Romain and Evan Stone); it’s like a wild girl-fight with Evan getting thrown into the mix. This is followed by a Hillary Scott gangbang scene which Cassandra experiences through a skin sim: it takes place among some scaffolding and has a very raw feel to it; of course, it’s dicks everywhere, but Hillary keeps the energy up and carries the scene well. We then get what was probably my least favorite scene of the movie, a flashback to a bust performed by Cassandra and a colleague on a couple of criminal sim producers (Alex Sanders and Adrianna Nicole); these two really abuse a drugged-out, captured agent (Julie Night) and I must say that the rape-like set-up and execution of this scene was a huge turn-off for me (in one of the BTS segments a crew member comments that Julie’s acting here is too good, and I agree). The last full sex scene on disc 1 is Cassandra once again jacking into a skin sim, this time an all-girl threesome (Adrianna Nicole, Lorelei Lee, and Madison Young) set in a rocky desert landscape; it’s shot in a very dream-like way, though it far from cuddly; while this scene wasn’t a turn-off for me, it did outstay its welcome a bit and I felt it dragged on, so for me disc 1 proved to be a mixed bag from a sexual point of view.
Disc 2 opens with some romantic love-making between Michael and his girlfriend (Trina Michaels) in front of a fire-place, well at least there is a romantic feel to the scene even if it does feature a bit of throat-fucking, anal, and atm. We then get a lot of story development before being treated to three sex scenes in a row, all of them cybernetically induced, but all of them also saying something about the persons experiencing them. First, Michael has a sort of naïve PI fantasy where he has sex with a client (Kylie Ireland) and his secretary (Delilah Strong), then Tesla dreams of sex with her former lover (James Deen), and finally Cassandra dreams of what looks like an orgy in hell which features a lot of performers having a lot of sex and which ends with Cassandra being dp:ed and served a mini-bukkake. All three of these scenes were good, but especially the last one really managed to mix the dream-like with the explicit in a fantastic way.
All in all, this makes eight full sex scenes (there are also some minor ones, including Tesla being subjected to a cavity search) and while I can’t say that all of the sex in Upload was my cup of tea (a bit too rough and a bit too anal-centric), I can certainly say that it’s quite some feat to have eight long sex scenes in a film and have a different feel to each and every one of them.
Eli Cross has compared the look that he aimed for in Upload with that of Battlestar Galactica (the re-imagined series) and it’s not just a very good comparison, it was also a very good idea to aim for that: the somewhat unnatural lighting and the shaky hand-cam feel both help in crafting a nice sci-fi atmosphere even if the sets are fairly basic. This style of shooting is a bit experimental when it comes to feature porn (which usually is shot in the style of day-time soaps), and it carries over to the sex scenes as well. Sometimes we have a bit of soft focus, sometimes washed-out colors, sometimes even black-and-white, and often the picture seems a bit overexposed. I don’t think visual artistry just for the sake of it has any place in porn, but I also think that in Upload there is thought behind what kind of visual feel we get in which scene; it might not work perfectly in each case, but it’s very refreshing that someone attempts this kind of variation within a single work and while some porn hounds might not like artistry in any way or form, at least this is artistry and not pretentious “artistry”. It’s all presented in a reasonably good anamorphic widescreen and often shot in a way that makes fine use of the widescreen format (certain positions and angles work better for fullframe, others for widescreen, and while many companies and directors have taken the step to widescreen, not all of them have understood how to use it well). I’m not sure what the budget was for Upload, but while political dramas might in one way be more difficult to pull off, the sci-fi and action genres are in another way even more difficult if you haven’t got the money and the right people to work with: it’s very easy that it comes out looking cheap and amateurish and this is really the first porn movie of its kind that I’ve seen that succeeds this well in terms of sets, wardrobe, make-up, fight choreography, and special effects. Of course, much of the credit for this must go to the camera work and editing because this is where you have to make what is fake look real. In fact, given how well Eli Cross & company have managed to nail that Battlestar Galactica kind of look, it’s just a pity that you don’t get to see Tricia Helfer (Number Six) or Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck) getting nailed too...
Just like with Corruption, what Eli Cross brings us here is on a whole other level than the usual unimaginative rush-jobs that constitute feature porn. Except for the Fashionistas and perhaps Pirates, there isn’t much in contemporary porn that shows this kind of attention to details. While there are some skilled photographers (like Jules Jordan or Robby D.) out there shooting porn, there aren’t many auteur-like film-makers writing scripts, directing, and editing their movies. Someone like Paul Thomas might perhaps reach this level if he took the time to focus on a single project, but he never does. The problem is of course that porn will serve its purpose as masturbation fodder without directors going the extra mile and one might certainly wonder why anyone would attempt to make one great film when they can make ten decent ones at the same expense of time, energy, and money; as a viewer it is however still deeply satisfying when someone makes that effort and succeeds. But the thing about a picture like Upload is not just that, it’s also how the story is partly told through the sex and the sex never feels like unmotivated breaks in the story. Even when the sex doesn’t push the story forwards or help to establish a mood, it allows us to get to know the characters better. The Fashionistas definitely has that to, but this is where films like Pirates part company and, ultimately, fall short: you’re glad that the sex is there, but it happens not because there is anything leading up to it, but simply because it’s porn and in porn people suddenly start having sex by going through all the standard porn motions. In her book Hard Core, Linda Williams compared porn features to musicals and usually the sex in porn is precisely like the singing in musicals, just as people in musicals suddenly burst into song, people in porn burst into sex (whether duets, trios, or some other form). You wouldn’t want to be without it, but an air of silliness still lingers. Compared to this, Eli Cross is the Wagner of porn - weaving plot and sex elements together into a whole that is uncompromising both in content and scale. Hopefully there will in the future be more directors than Cross and Stagliano that will both make this kind of effort and also succeed.
While I wouldn’t say that this film is perfect in every respect, it still is a production that stands head and shoulders above 99.9% of all the porn out there. What Eli Cross has accomplished here is something that as a film is very unlike Corruption, not only in being a sci-fi action film rather than a political thriller, but also in the visual feel of it. This makes any comparison with Corruption difficult and ultimately all you can say is probably that he has once again accomplished something great, which story-wise plays things more safely and has less depth, but visually is bolder and more fascinating.