Amazon TV review: Utopia (2020)
James R | On 27, Sep 2020
“What did you do today to earn your place in this crowded world?” That’s the question asked repeatedly in Utopia, the US remake of the Channel 4 thriller from 2013. Bold, colourful, dark and rivetingly disturbing, Dennis Kelly’s tale of a comic book that held the secret to global disasters was one of the most striking, original series ever put on our TV screens. It was cruel to see that vision cut short after just two seasons – and it’s almost equally cruel to watch America come along and attempt to recreate its sinister magic.
Once in the lap of David Fincher, it’s Gillian Flynn who steers this reimagining of the show to Amazon Prime Video, and she treads a careful line between staying faithful to the original and trying to do something new with the same material. And so we fall in with a gaggle of young misfits, who are all united by the quest of solve the mystery of the titular comic book – a graphic novel that seems to be able to predict viruses and other nasty things before they erupt around the world.
If the word “timely” springs to mind, that’s because, in many ways, it is; there’s an innate terror to seeing a flu spread through the human population in a fictional scenario, even if there’s a conspiracy theory at play that is notably far from the real life situation of the coronavirus pandemic. But that unsettling eeriness gives Flynn’s fast-paced drama an edge that it might not have had a year ago – if it doesn’t feel directly relevant to world events, it certainly feels indirectly adjacent to them, fusing the apocalyptic mood with the natural human tendency to wonder how much natural disasters such as forest fires and global warming are down to our own treatment of the planet; when the human race is so gargantuan in number, humankind’s irresponsible, selfish streak can carry a huge impact.
“How much evil do you have to do in the world to do good?” “None. The answer is none. None evil.” That’s the moral dilemma at the heart of the show, as we follow our rag-tag ensemble trying to navigate their way through a situation in which nobody seems to be on the right side. Flynn has a neat ear for dialogue, and a taste for exposing the nastiness beneath the wholesome surface of society, which really comes to the fore as she reworks details of the narrative – one moment involving a fake social media profile and a narrative to sell to the public is bleakly plausible. But the US TV-ness of it all can’t help but make the warped humour and eccentric flourishes feel slightly sanitised; compared to the Channel 4 programme’s eye-catchingly unique production design, this looks and feels like most other expensive US dramas out there.
The cast, however, bring their own touches to the table the more the show unfolds, and it’s here that the new Utopia does manage to stand up in its own right. John Cusack is fantastic as Kevin Christie, a biotech genius who’s determined to do what it takes to save everyone – although he’s so calmly, chillingly convincing that he unfortunately steals the thunder of Arby (Christopher Denham), who becomes a less threatening echo of Neil Maskell’s eccentric hitman.
Rainn Wilson’s epidemiologist Dr Stearns, meanwhile, brings a more earnest, compassionate dose of smarts to the fray, and really gets to shine in some domestic confrontations in the season’s second half. Wilson’s warm-hearted presence is backed up by Dan Byrd’s pragmatic Ian, Ashleigh LaThrop’s eager, engaging Becky, Javon Walton’s brave Grant and Farrah Mackenzie’s resilient Alice. Desmin Borges delivers a likeably awkward turn as Wilson Wilson, even if he can’t quite escape the long shadow left by Adeel Akhtar in the role the first time round. Additional embellishments, such as Cory Michael Smith’s creepy turn as Kevin Christie’s son, Thomas, help to make up for the more familiar narrative arcs from the UK series.
Where all these people end up by the final credits is somewhere that’s both recognisable yet not, with characters arriving sooner than expected, others living longer than planned and yet more finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The end result is, despite this remake’s flaws, intriguing enough to have you considering returning for Season 2 – not least because Flynn is likely to depart from the Channel 4 show’s template to tie up the threads she’s left dangling. What did you do today to earn your place in this crowded world? The possibility of eventually giving Utopia fans the closure they’ve been waiting for – even in a cruelly reconfigured format – might just be enough.
Utopia (2020) is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.