Utopia review: John Cusack thriller makes strangely perfect pandemic TV
The Amazon show, written by Gone Girl's Gillian Flynn, brings a touch of black comedy to a conspiracy about a deadly virus.
Jennifer BissetFormer Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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Best New Journalist 2019 Australian IT Journalism Awards
Before diving into Utopia,
new conspiracy thriller series from Gone Girl's Gillian Flynn, let's get the big question out of the way: Is it better than the cult classic 2013 British series it's based on?
Short answer: No.
But at least it's not a mass appeal US remake. Flynn pens all eight episodes of the adaptation about a pandemic conspiracy, with John Cusack and Rainn Wilson providing the marquee names. Originally ordered in 2018 with David Fincher tapped to direct, the series hit pause before Amazon, with a trio of directors, made it happen -- and with the benefit of some fortuitous release timing.
That's as long as you're into pandemic TV. The ridiculous conspiracy, involving a bat-based virus that might have been created on purpose, will tug the occasional wry smile. There are new and reimagined characters, and the further the conspiracy unravels, the more it veers away from the original. Plus, Cusack is weirdly charismatic as the creator of a synthetic meat.
There's a lot here. But you're still better off seeking out the UK version.
The plot starts off the same way. Several parties are hunting down a graphic novel called Utopia that predicts future viruses. There are the torture-artist secret agents known as The Harvest, and the "fanboys" who believe the prequel to Utopia, Dystopia, predicted real-life epidemics like Eobola and MERS.
"Why do we keep feeling like it's the end of the world?"
"Because someone is ending the world!"
Caught in the middle is the mysterious Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane), who has a role in the graphic novel and is on the run from The Harvest. "Where is Jessica Hyde?" is repeated a lot.
The giddy excitement of the "fanboys", or nerdy internet friends who study the mysteries of the manuscript, is fun to share as the epiphanies come thick and fast across the episodes. There's insurance man Ian (Dan Byrd), his crush harboring a secret illness Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), underground bunker owner Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges), troubled 11-year-old Grant (Javon Walton) and brand-new character, idealistic Sam (Jessica Rothe).
Their bumbling naivety is chuckle-worthy, especially in high tension scenes with agents like Arby (Christopher Denham), a tracksuit-wearing, raisin-popping, softly-spoken psychopath. While there's no infamous school shooting from the original, his eyeball torture scene remains horrendous.
While the US adaptation's violence is less extreme, the extreme characters grate. They mainly populate the second big storyline following Cusack's scientist Dr. Kevin Christie, who's accused of starting a new virus, and Rainn Wilson's meek Dr. Michael Stearns, who studies it.
It doesn't help that some characters, like Jessica Hyde, are super serious, making those like Christie's ambitious son, who oversees a media spin team with the smile of a game show host, seem even more over-the-top.
The relatable band of misfits are gradually nudged to the side, when you want them to drive the narrative. Their interactions with Jessica lack chemistry, her cutthroat decisions often receiving baffled looks.
The absurd-to-serious tone rides an electronic current from Jeff Russo's score, which at times sounds like The Social Network's. It's dark and ominous, but might have benefitted from a hit of wackiness. Hear the rooster calls and chopstick clicks texturing Cristobal Tapia de Veer's lauded score for the original.
This grittier feel finds its way into the brownish Chicago setting. The original's stunning Technicolor palette is applied to the green fields and the yellow decontamination tents, but looks strangely muted, rarely popping.
Still, the likeable gang, propulsive mystery and the flecks of dark and deadpan humor create an absorbing world. It might be visually duller than the British series and can't take any credit for the imaginative brilliance, but Amazon's Utopia isn't a write-off. Benefitting from a timely release, it grows into something different, with a few twists fans of the original won't see from a mile off.
All episodes of Utopia are on Amazon Prime Video now.
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