This is a spoiler-free review of Amazon’s Utopia. All eight episodes are currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
After six months of enduring a pandemic, many of us have likely seen at least one conspiracy theory making the rounds on social media, suggesting that the virus has been engineered as part of a shadowy plan to control us. Amazon’s Utopia – the US remake of a stylish British thriller – asks the outlandish question: what if the conspiracies were true? The result is a satisfyingly twisty, well-paced labyrinth of mysteries that delivers on thrills, but can’t quite live up to the high bar set by its source material.
It should be made clear out of the gate that, despite its timing, Utopia is not a response to our current world situation, nor is it actually all that interested in exploring the effects of an epidemic. There are no masks or social distancing here, and the story largely follows in the footsteps established by the 2013 British original, back when nationwide quarantine seemed a sci-fi concept in itself. However, the current pandemic does add an uneasy layer of paranoia to the proceedings that Utopia doesn’t provide itself.
Penned entirely by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, Utopia follows the gradually more desperate journey of a group of comic book nerds obsessed with Dystopia; a graphic novel that predicted a variety of deadly epidemics via messages hidden in its artwork. Within the first hour, the group discover that an unpublished sequel – Utopia – exists, and that it could hold the key to solving the mysteries behind a future epidemic conspiracy. But as the group travel further down this intriguing rabbit hole, they face violent opposition from those who’d rather the secrets were kept in the dark.
The best of these obstacles is Arby (Christopher Denham), a ruthless hitman offset by a childlike demeanor. His sloped shoulders and schoolboy haircut, combined with the occasional use of an inhaler and continual munching of chocolate raisins, contrast fantastically with his brutal efficiency. His methods seemingly have no bounds, resulting in the show’s most alarming, impactful sequences. He’s the tool that keeps The Harvest – Utopia’s shadowy force – continually dangerous and unpredictable.
The Harvest itself delightfully revels in all the best conspiracy tropes. Its methods slowly escalate over the season, from simple assassinations to the obsessive construction of false identities and online scapegoats. As more is revealed, the group becomes progressively more cult-like, which neatly encapsulates their genuine belief in their own monstrous actions.
Flynn’s writing is at its best when scripting John Cusack and Rainn Wilson’s characters, who admirably tackle their roles as major players within the pharmaceutical company attempting to battle the virus outbreak. Cusack’s Dr. Kevin Christie has a remarkable calmness about him – he’s a wise dad to staff and family alike – which makes his delivery particularly magnetic. Meanwhile, Wilson’s virologist, Michael, is amusingly thrilled by the potential oncoming apocalypse’s link to his previous work.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20puzzle%20box%20mystery%20format%20actually%20pays%20off%20audience%20dedication.”]Unfortunately, Utopia’s core cast of comic obsessives are less engaging. While part of the charm is that they are regular folk in over their heads, they’re all a little too regular. Bluntly, they’re forgettable (with the exception of Jessica Rothe, who brings to Sam the same delightful energy she displayed in the Happy Death Day movies.) This sadly also covers Jessica Hyde – the conspiracy’s lynchpin, played by Sasha Lane – who, despite her ragged appearance, simply doesn’t feel odd or unpredictable enough. I’d had high hopes for Lane, but despite a clear dislike for showers and a taste for grim violence, there’s little about her that’s unsettling. She’s just a bit flat, and that’s a great disservice to a character that’s not just fascinating conceptually, but also delightfully strange in her original British incarnation, played by Fiona O’Shaughnessy.
Characterisation is not the only area where this US remake pales in comparison to the British original. 2013’s Utopia, created by Dennis Kelly (who serves as executive producer on this remake), was shot using a CMYK color model, with prominent use of acidic yellows and eye-searing cyan skies. Its direction was mathematically precise, with static, perfectly framed scenes contrasting with both the chaos of the narrative and the brutality of its violence. It was scored by a soundtrack that layered wheezy breathing, strange beats, and unusual melodies. In short: it’s one of the most striking shows produced in the last decade, and stands as proof that style can become substance.
Amazon’s Utopia has no style. It’s shot like a regular TV show. A good TV show, yes, but it looks and feels like anything you’d expect from a decent network or streaming service. Utopia should feel different. I can only imagine what kind of a show this would be if headed up by, say, Legion’s Noah Hawley, or even David Fincher, who was set to create it alongside Flynn when this was a HBO project several years back. I’m not asking for a replica of that original style, but this is a show that absolutely needs its own stamp.
[widget path=”global/article/imagegallery” parameters=”albumSlug=amazons-utopia-20-images&captions=true”]
But what if you’ve never seen the original? Well, you’re still getting one of the most enjoyable TV conspiracy thrillers since The X-Files ruled the airwaves. In essence, it’s the same fantastic lyrics, just set to less interesting music. The puzzle box mystery format actually pays off audience dedication; you’re kept in the dark until the very end, but major plot reveals are dropped at just the right moments, creating an energetic pace. And that mystery is delightfully dark; a twisted look at how people in power can twist the world around their little finger that is unashamedly fictitious rather than reflective of the real world.
Sadly, it’s also a show so fascinated with its own puzzle and mythology that its characters barely get a look in. The people you meet in the pilot are left essentially unchanged by their experiences; still boring, still sometimes inexplicably able to find meaning in the art of a graphic novel, just now injured or wearing worse clothes. Again, it’s a shame Utopia stumbles here, because the perfect blueprint for these characters – a different version of the same series – has been sat there since 2013.
Source: IGN.com Amazon's Utopia: Season 1 Review