Over six months into our present pandemic reality, a new series tackling some familiar, and rather unsettling, subject matter is now available to view on Amazon. We're talking about Utopia, Gillian Flynn's (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) American remake of the short-lived 2013 UK series of the same name. And while the concept of a conspiracy thriller about a fictional comic book's involvement in solving a world-killing virus may sound intriguing, the new show falls quite short in delivering what many audiences are looking for right now: some worthwhile escapist entertainment.
The events of the program pop off after "Utopia," the sequel to another fictional graphic novel "Dystopia" is found in some dead guy's house. At the center of the first comic's paneled pages is a girl named Jessica Hyde who, along with her dad, is abducted by an ominous bunny-headed villain known simply as Mr. Rabbit. According to the comic, Mr. Rabbit is the man behind a cavalcade of viruses released into the public. Jessica does indeed escape, but her father isn't so lucky. Thus, her mission to seek vengeance and rescue her dad begins, leading to the catchy phrase, "Where is Jessica Hyde?"
That question leads a collection of fans to burrow a bit deeper into the comic's subject matter and convene on the Internet to pour over the clues that this book may be more than just a work of fiction. Ebola, SARs, Zika and MERS are just a few of the viruses that are mentioned, and it's clear pretty quickly that this group of sleuth-y geeks -- doomsday prepper Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges), environmental do-gooder Samantha (Jessica Rothe), terminally ill Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Becky's dorky love interest Ian (Dan Byrd), and a resourceful little boy named Grant (Javon "Wanna" Walton) -- believe "Dystopia" and its highly-awaited sequel are a roadmap to saving the world from viral destruction.
As this rag-tag crew of comic book nerds delves further down Utopia's rabbit hole, a whole violent mess begins to unravel around them led by Arby (Christopher Denham) a coldblooded manboy killer who has a childlike obsession for raisins. And once a woman claiming to be the real Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) shows up, the shit really begins to hit the fan.
Enter John Cusack and Rainn Wilson, who play Dr. Kevin Christie and Michael Stearns, respectively. They are easily the biggest names attached to the project and deliver the strongest performances in a plotline that involves trust issues with the CDC and the rush to push out a vaccine for this flu virus, which is specifically killing children. Their contribution to the program is noteworthy but in the end, they're just cogs in a big infuriating machine.
"We started and ended filming before the real-life pandemic happened," Flynn revealed during the show's panel at the CTAM summer tour. "But as far as just the resonance of what is truth, what's reality, how [a viral pandemic] affects those things, how much do we believe in institutions, those were all in play as I started writing it."
She has also gone on record to say that this Utopia is less violent than it's British predecessor. And that's worth noting, considering the amount of torture featured on the program. From a scene depicting a person's eyeball being doused with salt before getting scooped completely out of their head to another that show's fingernails being ripped off a hand, one by one, the Amazon series doesn't skimp on the shock-worthy content.
Look, we've got no qualms with over-the-top violence. The Boys comes through with the blood and guts quite regularly, and it does so without losing sight of its story and heart. The problem with Utopia, aside from its questionable story, is that if it's going to try and balance humor with violence while following a group of teenage heroes through a Cloak & Dagger-style thriller, it needs to spend at least some time developing these folks into root-worthy characters.
During the CTAM panel, Flynn revealed that when she initially pitched the series, she described Utopia as, "The Goonies meets Marathon Man." That's an intriguing concept, to be sure. But when you have shows like Stranger Things fully dialed into that nostalgic Amblin vibe, you've really got your work cut out for you. And since there are so many people on screen at any given time, Flynn's series drops the ball on that important character component. The result is a show filled with one-dimensional heroes and villains who feel like they are being manipulated by an unlikeable target -- *cough* Jessica Hyde *cough* -- while everyone is just running from one weird scenario to another.
We're not saying Utopia wasn't set up for success. When the UK series came to an end after just two seasons, David Fincher came on board to develop the project for American audiences when the series was still at HBO. He didn't stay long, but Flynn ended up taking the reigns and worked for roughly seven years to bring this series to life. With a qualified cast and decent budget behind it, Utopia picked up a steady amount of hype over the years. But after watching seven episodes of the series, we're still a bit foggy on what the point of the whole thing is.
No one knew the world would be flooded with the profound issues these on-screen characters are facing. Viral pandemic? Check. Protests against the government? Check. Children's lives (and deaths) being politicized? You betcha.
During an era when COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than 200,000 Americans while baffling deep state-themed machinations have gained major ground in the cultural lexicon, causing a growing lack of trust in our leaders -- and science, for that matter -- Utopia feels haphazardly cobbled together and unfortunately timed. The show may not be championing these real-world conspiracy theories, but the simple fact that it's here and available for public consumption already sends a rather peculiar message to the general public.
Making a conspiracy theory-riddled series about a viral pandemic during 2020, and attempting to throw in some bloody violence and humor to snatch up some prime viewership and make these relevant issues feel comic book-y, sure is a choice. A bad one.
When you look up the word "Utopia" in Merriam-Webster, you get: "a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions." In an era when audiences are clamoring for fun, comforting entertainment, Amazon's Utopia misses the mark entirely. Sure it's edgy and ultraviolent, but with accountability feeling like a hot commodity nowadays, the Amazon series feels like it's the furthest thing from ideal perfection that you can get.
Utopia is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.