Utopia review: Amazon’s hyper-violent conspiracy thriller about a pandemic is relevant, but rambling
Creator: Gillian Flynn
Cast: John Cusack, Sasha Lane, Rainn Wilson, Christopher Denham
The criticism around Gillian Flynn’s portrayal of women has barely subsided and now she must batten down the hatches for another onslaught. Her new project, the Amazon Prime Video series Utopia, is sure to irritate perhaps the most toxic of subcultures -- comic book fandom.
In an early scene, a couple of hitmen walk into a fan convention and stare in amazement at the vibrant passion on display. One of them calls it disturbing, the other thinks it’s wonderful. And that sort of sums up Flynn’s stance as well.
Watch the Utopia trailer here
Based on the cult UK series of the same name, Utopia is a conspiracy thriller about a group of nerds who band together to locate a comic book manuscript that they believe contains information about future pandemics. They’re convinced of this because the book’s precursor seemingly predicted major tragedies such as the SARS and MERS epidemics. Meanwhile, a shadowy organisation known as The Harvest, also looking to get its hands on the precious manuscript, is hot on their heels.
With a central plot that involves a shady pharma company, major infection hotspots, and the looming threat of a large-scale outbreak, I won’t deny that I got the heebie-jeebies drawing parallels to the ongoing pandemic. In fact, the show, in many ways, is as prescient as the fictional comic book that everyone in it seems to be after. It’s a disconcerting experience, for sure.
But while the UK original featured a faceless organisation as the ‘villain’, the US remake, like most US remakes, simplifies things, by casting John Cusack as the ‘pharma-bro’ antagonist. Every night at the dinner table, he asks his family the same question: “What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?” Cusack brings a quiet menace to his performance that is far too subtle for the show, which is shrill to a fault. Although it’s interesting to observe how, in the span of just a few years, the pendulum has swung from audiences perceiving fast wealth as aspirational, to now being suspicious of it.
Even though Cusack’s character — Dr Kevin Christie — is an American, I’m worried that Utopia might play into the Trumpsters’ narrative that the Covid-19 virus was manufactured in a Chinese laboratory. While some conspiracies are harmless — for instance, no one cares if Tom Cruise worships Xenu — others have real-world consequences.
But Utopia never pretends to be a documentary, or even as realistic as something like, say, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. The show is steeped in genre storytelling, often times resembling a comic book itself.
A great many changes have been made, immediately setting it apart from the British original. And while the images are comparatively unremarkable — the UK Utopia was a visually stunning piece of television — the violence is just as visceral.
I am not allowed to discuss specifics — Amazon’s list of plot points that cannot be broached rivals the ones I received for Stranger Things and Black Mirror — but be warned: there are scenes that push the boundaries of bad taste. In fact, only seven episodes (of nine) were provided for preview. And with Amazon once again looking to release episodes in a staggered manner, as opposed to dumping them all in one go, it’ll be weeks before I’m able to watch the finale. I doubt I’ll return to it, however. And that’s unfortunate, considering what Utopia could have been.
Flynn, the writer of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, who serves as showrunner here, sure knows how to construct a compelling yarn. But Utopia was positively begging for a sole directorial voice. This isn’t to say that Toby Haynes, Susanna Fogel and the others have done a poor job, but when you consider what we almost had, you’d feel just as disappointed as well.
Utopia was previously set up by Flynn and David Fincher at HBO, hot off their blockbuster collaboration on Gone Girl. Fincher would’ve directed every episode. But budgetary disputes forced the filmmaker to drop out. Fincher’s depraved sensibilities would’ve been perfectly suited for this material, and one can only imagine what it would’ve been like to see his name on the stylish opening credits sequence.
Speaking of the opening credits, despite appearing in what can charitably be described as a recurring role, Cusack has been given top-billing. It’s his first proper television gig, and he is by far the most recognisable name on the call-sheet, but it’s American Honey actor Sasha Lane who plays the protagonist, Jessica Hyde. Written in broad strokes as opposed to careful calligraphy, however, she’s hardly a quintessential Flynn heroine.
Utopia is yet another victim of an ailment that has affected past Amazon shows such as The Boys and Hunters: bloat. It’s too long, it’s too convoluted, and it often gets distracted by ideas it seems to be coming up with on the fly.
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