Utopia review: Amazon's remake of the British cult show is an unwanted stand-in for a season 3 of the original
The show's glaring lack of ambition for telling a story, that is inherently endowed with edge-of-your-seat moments and riveting characters in a gross and murky universe, is insulting to its already well-established fandom.
I remember when in early 2018, the news of David Fincher and Rooney Mara bailing out of the American (and then-HBO) remake of the British cult thriller Utopia (2013) broke on the internet, and consequently, broke my heart, only to be salvaged a sliver by the fact that Gillian Flynn would still be show-running it.
I, dear reader, happened to be among the millions who tuned into Utopia subreddits religiously, debating over a well-deserved and much-needed closure to the story with a season 3 that the Channel 4 original — created by Dennis Kelly — never got. Fincher's delicious wickedness could have offset this grave injustice, but after all, the world is not exactly a wish-granting factory any longer, like it would occasionally be in the days of yore.
Cut to a pandemic-ridden life in 2020, holed up in my room, I catch myself watching early screeners of said remake picked up by Amazon Prime Video, and wonder if this is the best the franchise fans could have been offered. My answer to that would be a resounding 'no', and for viewers encountering Utopia-verse for the first time — I hope not.
Right at the outset, I would like to mention how I thought the trailer was hackneyed and almost too unimaginative to pique my interest, which, I suspect would have been missing altogether had it not been for my prior investment in the original. However, this allowed me to set the bar reasonably, and not remarkably, low for the remake, granting myself enough space to be occasionally surprised and satisfied by it — and on this count too, I was mostly let down.
Considering its impeccable timing, the show feels like a vague simulation of the real world now — the threat of a virus, hope for a vaccine, capped off with a generous helping of conspiracy theories. A group of comic book nerds — Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges), Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrde), Samantha (Jessica Rothe), and Grant (Javon Walton) — unite in the search for Utopia, a fictional sequel to a fictional comic book named Dystopia, which is said to have accurately predicted outbreaks of diseases like SARS and MERS. The introductory episode sets the stage a little too hastily, so much so that 15 minutes into it, I am already trying to catch my breath keeping up with a screenplay that seems like the outcome of Quentin Tarantino taking a hike and leaving an intern to direct an episode of Stranger Things. Well, that is the mark of dyed-in-the-wool American entertainment, I guess.
This motley crew, however, is played by a set of highly promising actors, albeit, in their individual bubbles. Sadly, they barely ever shed the initial awkwardness their characters are required to wear in their first in-person meeting at the Utopia manuscript auction. This makes their chemistry, or the severe lack of it, distressing to watch. It is only fair to expect some degree of warmth, if not outright fireworks, in the dynamics of a ghost-busting gang out to rescue the world from the evils of a kooky cult dressed as a pharmaceutical firm that is hot on their heels.
Now, while I was not particularly perturbed by the aforementioned misses (remember, I set the bar 'reasonably' low), it is precisely at this point that my optimism begins to whittle. My disdain for American oversimplification and demystification of riddles by putting faces on them — which in this case is of the wonderful John Cusack, as the suave and diabolical Dr Kevin Christie who heads the shady pharmaceutical firm — is not unfounded. In what could be termed extended cameos, the characters of Cusack and Cory Michael Smith (who plays Kevin's son Thomas Christie) render the action and plot redundant — it is a moo point. This lets the audience, including ones who are new to the franchise, predict what lies ahead in the remaining seven episodes from a million miles away.
Additionally, it is a major departure from the British original, which, at this juncture, I begin to miss even more for its lusciously blue-grey visuals, creative gore, and meditative pace, all of which have been pared down (and the palette brightened up) in the American adaptation.
What really made me plow through, however, are the stellar acts in a show that is oftentimes meta, playing out like a comic book itself. A balding Christopher Denham as Arby — Christie's most beloved henchman — raisin-munching, gun-spoon-needle-wielding and cartoon-watching with glazed eyes made my stomach do uneasy flips. His steely, almost soporific lilt reminded me of 'HIM' from The Powerpuff Girls — the most menacing bad guy in the show, if you ask me. I would go so far as to say that he outdid Neil Maskell's Arby too, and boy was Maskell a good Arby.
Then there is the infuriatingly naive virologist Dr Michael Stearns, brought to life by the reliable Rainn Wilson. He is a little too curious for an exceptionally obtuse man, and even though this does not bode well for him, it does for an audience that might be running thin on patience already. Wilson, much like most of the cast (the operative keyword being "most," and you will know why in a bit), lends a believable sincerity to a story that seems to be in a hurry to get to the finale and just be done with it.
The most glorious dud, however, was the casting and writing of Jessica Hyde — the central figure in Utopia-verse — which brings me to moo point number two. As is evident from the trailer, Sasha Lane's Hyde is actively helping — rather hijacking — the mission of the comic-heads by throwing her weight around unnecessarily, only to end up as ace as*hole instead of a feisty badass. At this point, I begin to take offence, as it weighs down the narrative even further.
Lane brings little to no nuance to one of the most enigmatic heroines in recent times. The mystery and compassion that accompanied the character's poise in the original (played by Fiona O'Shaughnessy) is thwarted ruthlessly by the actor's confused portrayal, making her come across as a pesky, brutish, self-centred Draco Malfoy-like figure with daddy issues. While I felt guilty for being unable to sympathise with her, I empathised with little Grant's disillusionment with his 'girl' Jessica on meeting her. I really did.
You might think this is crazed, biased fan-speak (which it probably is), but it comes with the gamble you make when trying to woo an already well-defined subculture, with a remake no one asked for. However, beyond it all, my biggest grouse with Amazon's Utopia is its glaring lack of ambition for telling a story that is inherently endowed with edge-of-your-seat moments and riveting characters, in a gross and murky universe. For a planet presently grappling with more demons than it can handle, watching crusaders in a parallel world do more than just quarantine to save humanity should have felt cathartic, but it does not.
To answer the oft-asked question on the show — "What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?" — on behalf of its makers, I would say, not much, really. Not much at all.
And with that, I think it is finally time to relaunch an online petition for that well-deserved season 3 of the original.
Utopia releases on Amazon Prime Video on 25 September.
All images courtesy Amazon Prime Video
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