Review: Amazon's predictable American reboot of 'Utopia' consistently undermines itself
Courtesy of Prime Video
Known for her mystery and successful run of adult thrillers with “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects,” Gillian Flynn seemed the perfect candidate to unpack the wild theories and revelations in Amazon Prime’s American reboot of “Utopia.” But alas, there’s something painfully off about the entire series and over the course of the seven (of eight) episodes provided for review, Flynn’s touch seems widely out of place, saturating entire frames with brutal violence (often directed at young children) that bears no real world consequence. Not to mention the series incorporates a slew of perfectly timed subplots in regards to a worldwide pandemic, and government overreach that feels like a slap in the face.
An adaptation of the British series that aired from 2013 to 2014, and set in present-day Chicago, “Utopia” follows a group of obsessive geeks and their unrequited admiration for a comic book called “Dystopia.” The story is about Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) and her scientist father being taken hostage by the slimy Mr. Rabbit who basically creates viruses and bioweapons to use on the world.
“Dystopia” has garnered quite the reputation in the Comic Con circles of the world, but in the years since its 2014 release, the author never released another property. That is until an unpublished manuscript for its sequel, “Utopia,” is found in the dusty corridors of a young woman's deceased grandfather’s home. Understanding how valuable such a property is, the woman decides to hold an auction for the highest bidder at an upcoming convention where devout “Dystopia” fans converge for one weekend.
That’s where Sam (Jessica Rothe), Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd) and Wilson (Desmin Borges) all decide to link up for the first time, pool their money, and try to purchase the manuscript. These aren’t normal fans by any standard, as the squad believes “Dystopia” was the key predictive element for countless natural disasters, including Ebola, Zika, and MERS. With those implications in check, the group believes “Utopia” could have further information on the future, and provide essential background on how to stop impending attacks.
Meanwhile, a flu that targets young children is ravaging through the Midwest, causing statewide lockdowns and quarantine zones to manifest. As the chaos ensues and parents look for answers, all eyes are on Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack) and his experimental, lab grown protein that was provided to school aged children who then became ill. Virologist Dr. Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson) is on the cusp of a breakthrough, noticing the young patients symptoms resemble that of another flu strand he studied in Peru.
There’s plenty to digest in the series opening episodes, mixed in with a wide array of dark comedy to sooth the tension, and interconnected subplots. But the graphic, often blunt, violence can sour an otherwise tender exchange, and the predictable twists and odd lack of urgency suggest “Utopia” is quite literally biting off more than it can chew.
None of the characters are practically interesting, especially Lane whose scowling, one note, approach to Jessica Hyde’s mantra is painful to endure. Plus Flynn seems too preoccupied with trying to blend the charisma and chemistry of a sitcom with undeveloped science fiction elements to actually care about where “Utopia” ends up. So instead of a fun riff on “Saved by the Bell” meets “The X-Files,” the show settles for cheesy villains with no real moral compass, and protagonists that aren’t worth rooting for. When Lane’s Hyde murders an important character in cold blood, you’d be amazed at how quickly the show moves on from the implications. Sure, Flynn wants us to believe that life is unpredictable, I understand that, but why does everything else seem so predestined? If the show doesn’t care, why should I?
Some members of the ensemble manage to hold their own: LaThrope as Becky manages to get the most mileage out of her character, a desperate teen whose prone to seizures caused by Deel’s syndrome, with the others - including heavyweights Cusack and Wilson - failing to make an impression, though, not from a lack of trying.
At nearly every corner, “Utopia” undermines its message with scenes of violence meant to push the plot of each episode forward. There are extended sequences of torture, not limited to eyes being gouged out and fingernails being removed that add nothing to the core contex of the narrative. Each scene is framed and shot with a headache inducing techno score, and does a poor job at illustrating the impact of these horrors on the main characters. By the last episode, you’d think the plan would be in clear focus and, heading into the season finale, set in stone. But instead, this critic was left confused and frustrated at the lackluster and poor setup of the premise.
“Utopia” is littered with obvious parallels to our current predicament: from characters worried about spreading a virus in a pandemic infused world, to the blaming of our government officials for not turning over a vaccine quick enough. But it’s all stuck inside a cartoonish vacuum that even when the series is on the cusp of forming a breakthrough, it only becomes sillier the deeper down the rabbit hole you go.
All episodes of UTOPIA will drop on Amazon Prime Video Friday September 25th