‘Utopia’ Review: Despite its shortcomings, conspiracy thriller Utopia is ideally suited for Covid-19 times
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The novel coronavirus (nCoV) outbreak has had a devastating impact on humankind since the onset of 2020. But if we looked at following timeline of similar outbreaks from 2000 onwards, we would learn that the threat of such outbreaks has been a constant one: West Nile Virus (1999-2002), Anthrax (2001), SARS-CoV (2003), Mumps (2006), E.coli and Salmonella (2006), H1N1 Virus (2009), Whooping Cough (2012), MERS-CoV (2012), Ebola (2014), and Zika Virus (2016).
It’s quite obvious that the threat is very real. But what if we had a comic book which accurately predicted these deadly pandemics well in advance? Well, welcome to the world of Utopia—the new Amazon series that centers on a group of comic fans who meet online and bond over their obsession of a comic book series named ‘Utopia’ known to predict deadly pandemics.
The series is created by Gillian Flynn, the famed author of Gone Girl. Flynn also serves as showrunner and executive producer. Utopia is inspired by the 2013 British series of the same name. Amazon’s conspiracy thriller series about saving the world has an ensemble cast featuring the likes of John Cusack, Rainn Wilson, Christopher Denham, Ashleigh LaThrop, Dan Byrd, Jessica Rothe, Desmin Borges, Sasha Lane, Cory Michael Smith, and Javon Walton.
When Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight came out in 2008 it quickly became a major blockbuster of the decade. Most of the people who watched it praised it for its realistic quality. But a small section of hardcore comic book fans weren’t too impressed with the realism that the movie offered. And while their resentment didn’t really impact the movie’s dream run at the box-office.
It did raise some serious questions about the future of comic book adaptations. The success of The Dark Knight pushed more and more filmmakers to embrace realism while adapting comic book stories. Also, the desperation to get a ‘PG-13’ rating instead of an ‘R’ rating hard-pressed most filmmakers to further steer clear of the gory, immanent unpredictability of the comic book world.
As a result, with the exception of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, we hardly got to see any true comic book adaptation during the years that followed The Dark Knight. And it wasn’t until Robert Rodriguez’ 2014 sequel to his 2005 film Sin City that we finally got a full-fledged comic book taste that had gone missing in mainstream films for about half-a-decade. Of course, it was followed by Deadpool which paved way for R-rated comic book based films. Utopia is a major step forward away from the realism and towards the original comic book approach to cinematic storytelling.
The best thing about Utopia is that while watching it one gets sucked into the comic book world where it is set. It’s a very visceral experience that might make anyone who is not a comic book fan feel very uneasy at first. When typically a comic book story unfolds in an audiovisual medium the experience is quite relatable to gaming.
It’s a sudden death kind of an environment where anything can happen at any moment. So naturally there are lots of twists and turns with a very high body count. Also, the characters are quite twisted and diabolical, even the supposedly good ones aren’t to be trusted one bit. In fact, given the twists and turns and the bleak subject matter, it’s difficult not to be reminded of David Fincher’s 1997 thriller film The Game while watching Utopia. And so it’s really no surprise that Fincher was initially supposed to direct Utopia for HBO before things fell apart and the project got acquired by Amazon.
Fortunately for Amazon, they were able to get the second best person to helm Utopia, Flynn, who also adapted her 2012 novel for Fincher. Now, Flynn is no Fincher when it comes to exercising a mastery over the audiovisual medium but what works to her great advantage is that the long form narrative is essentially a writer’s medium. And working with a trio of directors, Toby Haynes (4 episodes), Susanna Fogel (3 episodes), and J.D. Dillard (1 episode), Flynn is able to deliver a solid series. However, there is no denying that had Fincher even directed only a couple of these episodes, the series would have got a certain lift.
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Utopia is far from being a perfect series (too many convenient coincidences, forced twists and turns, and inconsistent character arcs), but it does have it moments. While the comic fans’ quest for ‘Utopia’ with the hope of saving the world appears a little juvenile initially, it seems to work well within the series’ own meta-world—the comic within a comic structure. The borderline whacky performances of John Cusack, Rainn Wilson, Christopher Denham, and Desmin Borges greatly help bring Utopia’s world to life.
Essaying the complex part of the cunning and scheming Dr. Kevin Christie, Cusack is able to bring so much weight to the series with his stellar screen presence. Christopher Denham as Arby is a fine addition to the league of psychopathic killers we have seen over the years. Wilson as Dr. Michael Stearns and Borges as Wilson Wilson present to us the other side of crazy. Despite its shortcomings, Utopia is ideally suited to the pandemic times we live in, especially if you have a thing for conspiracy theories.