“Utopia” – Not exactly [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“Utopia” is a new 8 part series premiering on Amazon written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) based on the BBC series of the same name written and created by Dennis Kelly. The BBC series of 2013-14 was highly regarded. HBO originally bought the rights for an American remake but nothing came of it until Amazon bought the rights in 2018.
“Utopia” is a mash up of real life intersecting with the comic book world wherein disasters are described before they occur and there is only a short lead time to prevent them, if, indeed, that is at all possible. There are good guys and bad guys and a few in between.
The story and characters are led by post adolescent fanboys and fangirls in search of the Holy Grail in the guise of the only copy of “Utopia” in existence. It surfaces in a garage that is being cleared and soon word is out, not only of its appearance but also of its sale. And that is where the mayhem begins with death and destruction in the wake of ownership.
Our heroes are a band of young adults, with the exception of the most intrepid of the group, a 10 year old, who must navigate a perilous path of killers on the hunt. Oh, yes, and then there’s the appearance of the macho girl, Jessica Hyde, who’s actually a character in “Utopia” who brutally commandeers the band in order to regain possession of the comic. She needs it to discover her own fate and that of her missing father.
And then there’s the pandemic predicted in “Utopia,” which introduces us to the benevolent face of Big Pharma and the good hearted lummox who may or may not have a cure.
Are you following any of this? Neither did I. Just when some of it started to make sense, no thanks to limited character development and complicated plot, it got messier and I gave up trying.
I originally believed that what I was missing had more to do with demographics and genre. But eventually, it all comes down to plot, character, and believability or at least the ability to suspend it, and in this, “Utopia” is sorely lacking.
Certainly there is room galore for genre fiction. Frankly, there’s room for anything as long as it’s well done and developed. Unfortunately Flynn has given us little to nothing to hold on to. It can’t be blamed on a well-intentioned youthful cast but when, after several episodes you are still uncertain as to who any of them are, then you have a problem. It is possible that Flynn sought to cover this with the Band-Aid of extreme and gratuitous violence but that only serves to underscore the lack of character development and giant sized holes in the plot, such that it is. It certainly doesn’t help that the tie-in character, Jessica Hyde, is played rigidly without nuance by Sasha Lane (“American Honey”). Other young actors who might have promise, had their roles had any depth, were Javon “Wanna” Walton (“Euphoria”) as Grant, the savvy 10 year old; Ashleigh LaThrop (“The Kominsky Method”) as Becky who, as is never explained, has cancer; Desmin Borges (“You’re the Worst”) as Wilson, one of the group leaders; and Christopher Denham (“Argo”) as Arby the hitman who occasionally finds a thread of black comedy, but mostly is just uber violent to a numbing extent. Eventually the murders that continue to pile up lose their shock value.
The elder statesmen of the story are John Cusack, the “empathetic” head of a big pharma enterprise, and Rainn Wilson as a hapless/hopeless scientist who may hold the key to survival or may just end up being a dupe. Their acting experience shows and they bring a glimmer of depth to a shallow pond.
Clearly there was a budget. The production values are excellent and experienced crew was in place to make it look as real and dangerous as possible. The primary directors, Toby Haynes and Susanna Fogel are very experienced and their credits are impressive. When you have holes in your plot, you really need a director to distract you, and they did this as well as they could.
But using every paint on your palette has two possible outcomes: a rainbow or mud. “Utopia” is no rainbow.
Premiering September 25 on Amazon.