You’ll be drawn into the conspiratorial comic-book mysteries.
It’s unfortunately perfect timing for Amazon’s new series Utopia to come out. The thriller is about a deadly flu-like pandemic that’s spreading across the US and the evil corporate interests that want to profit off that. It’s also about a comic book that probably holds the key to stopping the viral apocalypse. It’s a nasty show filled with brutal violence and a puzzle at its center that, nonetheless, is extremely captivating. But what do you need to know before you start watching the eight episodes of the first season?
Who made this?
The series’ biggest pedigree is its writer Gillian Flynn, best known as the woman behind Gone Girl. She has been with this project through multiple incarnations now. Way back when, Utopia, which is based on a British property, was originally set to be directed by Flynn’s Gone Girl collaborator David Fincher for HBO. But, according to an interview Fincher did with Empire, he wanted $9 million for it and the network just wasn’t willing to pony up. The project moved to Amazon and Fincher ditched, but Flynn stayed on. For as entertaining as Utopia now is, the “what if” of Fincher’s involvement will always hang over it a little bit.
What is Utopia based on?
Utopia is actually not an original idea, but a remake of a UK show written by Dennis Kelly from 2013 that was already a cult hit. Now, this is not the first British TV show that Flynn has rewritten for American audiences. In 2018, she wrote the screenplay for Steve McQueen’s Widows, which was based on a series from the ’80s. Flynn’s Utopia is not an episode-for-episode remake of Kelly’s series. It takes the general concept — a comic book that holds keys to the world’s destruction — and some of the same characters and spins them in new directions.
“Dennis Kelly’s version is really sleek. It’s really poppy. It’s just its own particular world. I really wanted to do my own version of it,” Flynn told Rolling Stone. “I kind of hooked onto the idea that the end of the world is coming, and that the answer is in something as silly and as easy to disregard as a comic book. I liked that basic concept. And I liked the concept of being able to write about where we are and feel it — feel that sense that I think we all do, that we’re kind of on the edge of choices that are really going to make a difference in the future. We’re kind of tottering there. I wanted it to feel very, very realistic.”
So, break it down for me…
Where to start? Ultimately, Utopia gets pretty complicated, but let’s make this as basic as possible: In the first episode of Utopia a young woman inherits her grandfather’s house, and finds a hoarder’s nightmare. But among all the papers and detrius, she and her boyfriend discover the comic book at the center of all of this. After some quick research, they discover it’s the highly anticipated sequel to a book called Dystopia and decide to auction it off at a Comic-Con. There are plenty of potential bidders, including a wave of fanboys, but our ostensible heroes are a crew that met on a message board and take Utopia very, very seriously. These five — Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges), Samantha (Jessica Rothe), Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd), and Grant (Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton) — believe that Utopia holds the keys to saving the world. Then there are the violent lone wolves pursuing these pages: The unnervingly calm and odd Arby (Christopher Denham) and Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane), who just also happens to be the comic’s protagonist. John Cusack’s tech CEO Kevin Christie and his creepy family have something to do with all of this, but you’ll have to wait to find out.
Are there lots of twists?
Uh, yes. It’s helpful to remember going in that, first off, Utopia is a hyper-violent series. People will get killed in gruesome ways and blood will flow. Second, it’s also crucial to keep in mind that the violence does not only affect “bad guys.” No one is safe, and even the characters you think you should be rooting for will commit heinous acts. But the pleasure of Utopia is that, despite all of this grimness, it’s still very fun to watch. Flynn keeps the pace brisk, and each episode reveals some new weird facet to the conspiracy that’s often quite delightful, even if it’s menacing at the same time. Through all of that the unnerving tone keeps the viewer on his or her toes, while the parallels to the present day — i.e., governments rushing to get vaccines to the public — are enough to make you squirm.
Does it pay off?
As the narrative draws closer and closer to actually revealing some answers, you do start to wonder if this really all holds together, and what Utopia is really trying to say. Yet, even with those doubts — and the creeping feeling you might be disappointed — you can’t stop watching.
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