Review by James Lindorf
It has been a banner year for Amazon Studios when it comes to their original content. New seasons of popular shows like “Hanna” and “The Boys” led the way for new series, including “Hunters,” “Upload,” and their latest project, “Utopia.” Much like she did with “Widows, Gillian” Flynn (“Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects”) transported “Utopia” from Great Britain to Chicago. She may have changed locations, but she kept many of the main storylines from the International Emmy Winning show intact. Inspired by paranoia thrillers of the 70s like “Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men,” and “Marathon Man,” Flynn added plenty of her own twists to the British story, as well as a couple of new characters of her own design. The eight-episode action mystery series will premiere on September 25th.
The story of “Utopia” follows five online friends who believe that “Dystopia” is not just a comic book. Its pages contain not only the story of Jessica Hyde trying it save her dad from the clutches of the evil Mr. Rabbit, but a record of new diseases capable of decimating humanity. When they learn the only copy of the sequel, “Utopia,” is up for sale, they decide to come together to save the world. The group consists of outspoken activist and leader Sam (Jessica Rothe), nerdy insurance salesman Ian (Dan Byrd), the overly nice girl with a secret Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), conspiracy theorist and doomsday prepper Wilson (Desmin Borges), and Grant (Javon Walton), who has passed himself off as a wealthy playboy in their chat rooms but is, in fact, a 10-year-old boy.
Unlike every other group of prophets or conspiracy theorists, this group of friends is actually right. There is a devious Mr. Rabbit and his followers, The Harvest, out to introduce disease into the world. Looking to do some good, Sam and the rest have no idea the level of danger they have brought down on themselves. The Harvest is willing to kill anyone that has seen a single page of “Utopia.” The only chance the group has of surviving the asthmatic assassin Arby (Christopher Denham) is to rely on the real Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane).
The world of “Utopia” is a lot like ours, especially with the current pandemic situation. However, everything is just a little twisted or exaggerated. There is no genuinely relatable character in the entire show, even though every actor is doing a great job. Lane’s Jessica is hungry for revenge and is seething with anger. Her unchecked emotions make her a wild and unpredictable element that could be just as dangerous to the group as Arby if they don’t follow her rules. John Cusack brings charmingly eccentric and slightly maniacal energy to his role as Dr. Kevin Christie. The CEO of a biotech company that makes everything from vaccines to lab-grown meets. Christopher Denham brings the creepy factor to the show with his portrayal of Arby, who has an unnerving comfort level with brutality in his Sling Bladesque way.
While the story is interesting, eerily familiar, and unfortunately kind of believable, it is the characters that make or break “Utopia.” If you don’t have some level of fondness for them, you won’t be able to make it past the first couple of episodes. No matter how much shock factor Flynn was able to build into every episode. Some of the character motivations and plot twists are outlandish enough to defy traditional logic, but “Utopia” exists in an alternate reality where the bizarre is the new normal. Complimenting the actors was the work of cinematographers Shawn Kim and Stephan Pehrsson. They filled “Utopia” with well-shot action and added an ominous feeling of danger around every corner of Chicago.
“Utopia” will not have the wide-reaching appeal of other Amazon Originals like “Jack Ryan.” Still, it will be a hit for people who love things just slightly different, a little left of center. Fans of Netflix’s Umbrella Academy or almost anything directed by Guillermo Del Toro should find a lot to love about Flynn’s quirky and violent mystery of corruption and conspiracy.
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