Published Sep 22, 2020For a long time, Hollywood has suffered from a severe crisis of imagination. When the big studios and Orwellian media conglomerates that form the backbone of the American "Dream Factory" aren't rigorously rehashing, rebooting and rereleasing every item of '80s and '90s ephemera for those sweet nostalgia dollars, they turn their hungry eyes abroad for slightly less successful international properties. These curious artefacts can then be stripped down and reconstituted, jettisoned of all regional identity, style and eccentricity to produce a lukewarm cultural pastiche for binge-hungry American audiences. Now, there are some noticeable exceptions here, specifically in the realm of TV. However, for every runaway success like US adaptations of The Office or Shameless, we must also bear witness to abominable misfires like Skins or Kath & Kim. Sadly, Amazon Prime's Utopia is yet another property that's emblematic of this painful phenomenon.
Taking place in present-day Chicago, Utopia follows a group of comic book nerds — Ian (Dan Byrd), Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Samantha (Jessica Rothe), Grant (Javon Walton) and Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges) — who share a passion for an underground graphic novel called Dystopia. The novel chronicles the life of Jessica Hyde, a young girl whose genius scientist father was taken hostage by the villainous Mr. Rabbit and forced to create devastating viruses as synthetic bioweapons. The group, who mostly spend their time online in private forums searching for hidden clues buried in Dystopia's pages, attempt to make links to real-life disaster events by meticulously divining prophecy and conspiracy from the novel's evocative images.
When word of a rumoured sequel named Utopia reaches the group, they make their way to a fringe comic book convention to meet in person and obtain the elusive manuscript. It's here that they run afoul of Arby (Christopher Denham) and Rod (Dustin Ingram), two deadly henchmen working for a shadowy organization called Harvest, who are also searching for Utopia along with the real-world Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) and will go to any lengths to obtain them. We're also introduced to big pharma CEO Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack), his corporate lackey son Thomas (Cory Michael Smith), and frustrated virologist Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson), three characters who will soon be drawn into the group's dark web of conspiracy, deceit, and death — with Utopia resting firmly at its centre.
Developed by creator and showrunner Dennis Kelly, the original UK incarnation of Utopia aired on Britain's Channel 4 from 2013 to 2014. Pitched as a black comedy-conspiracy thriller, the show was a critical success during its two-season run, praised for Kelly's strong creative vision, bold cinematography, bright Technicolour palette and astonishing (often violent) visuals. When the show failed to be renewed for a third season, HBO announced it had picked up the series for a new American adaptation with the Gone Girl duo of director David Fincher and author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn attached to the project. Years of development hell limbo later, Fincher eventually left due to budgetary disputes, and the project moved over to Amazon Studios in 2018, with Flynn taking over as showrunner and Kelly staying on as an executive producer.
After watching the first seven episodes made available for review, it's clear that Flynn's Utopia is vastly inferior to Kelly's subversive original in almost every conceivable way. What Amazon's adaptation might share in general story beats, character names and core mythology, it squanders in terms of lasting visual impact, performer chemistry, rich storytelling and overall thematic resonance. Flynn drops several peripheral characters and subplots from Kelly's first season, injecting a whole host of new plot threads, most of which end up as meandering asides, tonally inconsistent attempts at humour, and pointless character deaths.
Another unfortunate aspect of Utopia is the lacklustre group ensemble. Byrd, LaThrop and Borges all give decent individual performances that lack cohesion and chemistry when brought together. Walton does a great job of conveying a child's sense of wonder and detachment in the face of a deadly global conspiracy. At the same time, Lane's portrayal of Jessica Hyde — a formidable and conflicted antiheroine who's entirely crucial to the show's core premise — comes off as one-note and narratively half-baked by the end of the season. Additionally, Denham's earnest depiction of Arby as a ruthless and menacing, neurologically atypical assassin also falls flat compared to Neil Maskell's terrifying turn in Kelly's Utopia.
While the use of mindless violence as shock value is still very much present, it is mostly devoid of any sense of stakes. Noticeable changes to key plot events early on are so obvious and telegraphed ahead of time that the viewer would already be connecting these dots when characters themselves are just beginning to riddle them out. Indeed, one wonders what this version of Utopia may have looked like with someone like Fincher at the helm, wielding a steady creative eye and (potentially) more sizable budget.
These noticeable faults end up having a significant impact in the show's first few episodes, where events are so jarring and rushed together that they feel detached from the show's overall thematic through-line. So, if viewers aren't already familiar with Utopia, or the trappings of the plot beforehand, their entertainment mileage may vary. However, longtime fans of the original Utopia will be sorely disappointed by Flynn's tedious and perfunctory adaptation of the material and likely switch off altogether.
If Kelly's Utopia felt like a bold graphic novel filled with bright, explosive cells of action and intrigue, Flynn's Utopia plays as a facsimile fanzine of those same pages, lacking all the vibrancy, fidelity and intricate detail of the original manuscript. Utopia has little to say about the nature of conspiracy that's new, timely or relevant — we already live in a modern era overflowing with the unreality of Trumpian politics, climate disasters, flat Earthers, COVID-19, 5G and QAnon.
In the show's third episode, Cusack's Dr. Christie informs us, "We all have our reasons for being in this world. We all have our purpose." The grand irony here is that Flynn's Utopia is rudderless in trying to justify its existence in a crowded world where fact is sadly more interesting than fiction. (Amazon Prime)