Cast: Sasha Lane, Rainn Wilson, Dan Byrd, Javon Walton, Cory Michael Smith, Ashleigh LaThrop, Desmin Borges, Farrah Mackenzie, Christopher Denham, John Cusack
Created by: Gillian Flynn
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Entertainingly pulpy and dizzyingly propulsive, Utopia, an Amazon Original series created by Gone Girl novelist-screenwriter Gillian Flynn, is an eerily timely and wildly springy conspiracy theory thriller set in the dark, dystopic, pandemic-hit rabbit hole.
At the heart of the plot is a long-lost sequel to a hugely popular comic book that had forewarned its readers of an impending epidemic. Hidden on its pages is a line that reads “this is our undoing” and points to “a new virus coming our way”.
The timing of Utopia, based on British playwright/screenwriter Dennis Kelly’s script for the 2013-14 British television series of the same name, is obviously a coincidence. The shoot ended well before COVID-19 struck. But the crippling paranoia its twisted, bustling narrative projects isn’t misplaced. It taps into our collective fears aggravated by bumbling governments and clueless demagogues.
A rampaging new flu strain is killing children in three US states – Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri. The deadliest thing about this pandemic, an offscreen TV newscaster announces, is that there are absolutely no survivors. Yes, that is how bad the outbreak is.
The needle of suspicion points towards meat produced in a lab by a pharma firm, which also owns a vaccine a virologist developed several years ago for Peruvian bat flu. The company is bent on rushing the purported cure into the market, giving testing protocols the go-by.
Top honcho Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack, who presents a chilling portrait of corrosive malevolence) tries to browbeat the vaccine developer, Dr. Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson of The Office), into believing that the shot is ready for delivery.
As the risks multiply, two groups are locked in a fierce fight over a graphic novel follow-up and its young female protagonist Jessica Hyde (played with earnest intensity by Sasha Lane). It is believed that the manuscript has coded secrets that one bunch wants to suppress or manipulate and the other is determined to decipher and put to salutary use. Jessica Hyde is crucial to both.
The eight-episode series unravels the mysteries behind – and around – the engineered epidemic. It hits thematic buttons that cut close to the bone while it delivers a robust, fast-paced action drama replete with a steady stream of nerve-wracking moments leavened at times with black humour.
In the line of the show’s fire are corporate peddlers of death, covert governmental machinations, medical malpractices, biological warfare, the brainwashing of the faithful and the spinning of false narratives to weaponize the flow of information. It also underlines the plight of p0pulations at the mercy of entrepreneurs, research set-ups and official machineries that do not care a hang about the notion of ‘greater good’ that they hide behind as they peddle untruths.
There are people here seeking a purpose, but they aren’t in control of their destinies. What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world? That is the question that their manipulative master asks. They answer listlessly. An armed and lethal man who has no mind of his own is an exception. You will do what you were born to do, he is told.
The plot of Utopia, which swivels one way and then another on its throbbing and meaningfully askew axis, hinges on an online chat community of comic book nerds. One of them stumbles upon the ‘lost’ manuscript. Seeing this as a gilt-edged opportunity, he alerts the rest of the group. He intends to hawk the manuscript to the highest bidder.
Four super-excited fans congregate at a fictional industry convention to throw their hats into the ring. It is here that Wilson (Desmin Borges), Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd) and Samantha (Jessica Rothe) come face to face for the first time. That is a bit of a stretch in the age of Facebook and Instagram.
They bond instantly over their shared passion and get along like a house on fire. But there are other dangerous fires that are lit unbeknownst to them as their Utopia obsession peaks and puts them on a collision course with shadowy pursuers believed to take orders from a certain Mr. Rabbit.
The quartet are sure that the sequel holds the key to preventing the pandemic but they have no idea what lies in store. They, however, hope to crack the messages embedded in the text and the graphics. Their paths soon cross not only Jessica Hyde’s but also an 11-year Grant Carson’s (Javon “Wanna” Walton).
Matters spiral out of their control as powerful forces jump into the fray and unleash mayhem on a mass scale. Jessica, with her own plans cast in stone, appears in flesh and blood even as a vicious, emotionless hitman Arby (Christopher Denham) and an accomplice go on a killing spree.
Utopia abounds in violence but none of it (with the exception of a grisly sea salt-bleach-and-spoon torture sequence) is overly shocking. A mass shooting at a school in the original British series is replaced here with a much smaller-scale massacre in the home of a woman whose moral qualms threaten to throw a spanner in the works of Dr. Christie and his son Thomas (Cory Michael Smith), the corporation’s cold-blooded spin doctor.
In a world that is sick in more ways than one, the ironically titled Utopia, as it careens through shifting scenarios at a scorching speed, constantly reminds us of the slippery slope mankind is on. Almost everyone on the right side of the good-versus-evil battle in Utopia are doomed to suffer.
Those that mean well are lonely, brooding or socially awkward individuals who have to navigate emotional vacuums or withstand grave personal tragedies. Even children, including the adorable Alice (Farrah Mackenzie) who Grant befriends in his quest for safety, aren’t spared.
Fear rules. While one of the comic book geeks is terminally ill, another, an eternal alarmist, has no bank accounts, no credit cards and no driving licence and builds himself a bunker stocked with enough canned edibles to last two years in the event of a food crisis. When someone suggests a round of coffee, he recoils. Caffeine, he says, is “a CIA interrogation tool” that makes you more responsive to torture.
When he is subjected to the most horrid form of physical torment, he shrieks in pain but hangs in there. The man dishing out the treatment says with chilling nonchalance as he walks away: “I think he is just a fanboy.”
Utopia, premiering on Amazon Prime on Friday, isn’t for the fan base alone. The whole wide world is in the same boat. This series will, in varying degrees, speak to us all. Plunge right in!