Amazon Studios’ Utopia Is A Meta Pandemic Rollercoaster
Utopia is easily the most creative take on the apocalyptic comic book you’ve ever seen. It is action-packed fun from beginning to end.
You won’t find something more timely than Utopia. At times it is uncomfortably relevant. Gillian Flynn, who wrote Gone Girl, developed the British series for Amazon, and the result is nothing short of well-timed fire. The latest original series is massively ambitious, wild as hell, and the most fascinating series of the year. I watch a lot of television, but Utopia is hands down the best of 2020. It’s the kind of science fiction that is so on-trend it has you listening fervently to the news and going over details like Wilson Wilson. Utopia is current, it’s now, and it is way more fun than it should be.
One of the many strengths of Utopia is cogent storyboarding. Everyone has a complete through-line. The story is dynamic and captivating for all seven episodes made available for screening. There are constant twists, turns, and character developments you won’t see coming. It is nothing short of tight storytelling. Humor, violence, and absurdity share space on Utopia. While it’s not as overtly raunchy as The Boys it shares some of the same successful DNA. Don’t expect any exploding whales but prepare for some shocking gore. In case you get lulled into a false sense of security by the action-heavy deaths in Episode 1, rest assured Utopia serves up a heaping dose of cringe-worthy gore on a silver spoon.
There are a lot of deaths, and most of them have lingering impacts. Some played for laughter and others a gravitational pull that yanks all who are close into the black hole that their existence has become. It becomes a joke of sorts and keeps you on your toes. That perpetually off-balance feeling serves to keep Utopia from teetering too close to the edge of reality. That’s a dangerous possibility for a show that could literally be ripped from the headlines with maniacal leaders concerned more with optics than public health and companies all exploiting a desperate market. Characters come and go without preamble. Some of them seemingly more important than others when you first meet them. All of them memorable.
Utopia is, at its heart, the tale of a quest. Sure that quest is a fantastical journey through an all too real hellscape with a group of reluctant heroes, psychopathic leader, and comic book guide, but a worthy trial none the less. An unexpected group of comic nerds is on a quest to find Utopia which is the sequel to Dystopia a graphic novel they are convinced is the key to predicting the end of the world and hopefully saving it. Early on we are introduced to them in completely organic ways that highlight their differences and normalize their quirks.
Shockingly the comic book heroes never feel like cartoon characters even as they bounce from one outlandish experience to the next. Due to strong performances by the entire ensemble cast, the storyline feels urgent and terrifying instead of campy and ludicrous. These are fully defined, 3D people that could be your neighbors, your coworkers, or the guy developing the COVID-19 vaccine. It feels that real. Depending on how much you like realism with your metaphors that will mean you will either love this show or find you hiding under your bed and searching Amazon for Prepper materials.
The oddball quirky cast of misfits, weirdos, turns out to be pretty brilliant ciphers. The fate of the world rests on the shoulders of a conspiracy theorist, sick Millineal, a child, an anti-hero I can’t mention in this review, and a soy boy beta cuck who can’t decide if he’s all in for bravery or his love interest. Dan Byrd(Cougar Town) who plays the passive everyman Ian, is obviously the audience’s entry into the series. He is the eyes and ears and his incredulous demeanor as he is drawn further and further into sheer madness brings the lunacy of Utopia to a more grounded place. A place where we could easily find ourselves being chased by bad guys and wearing tinfoil hats.
Veteran actors with an endless well of gravitas bring their selective texture to what is already a great script. Camryn Manheim’s gravel-voiced action hero come to life, Rainn Wilson’s scientist with a heart and a whole lot of frustration, and John Cusack’s greedy entrepreneur all shade the kaleidoscope of Utopia. Wilson’s Dr. Stearns is capable but fragile, and he may be simultaneously our best and worst hope as he bumbles his way into the crosshairs of an epidemic. As sympathetic as he is dangerous, he serves to propel the action along when it threatens to go off the rails completely.
John Cusack plays the passionately indifferent Dr. Christie on a tightrope. There’s something not quite right with Dr. Christie’s need to make the world a better place, whether it needs it or not, that rings more interesting than the typical evil mad scientist. He isn’t just a greedy corporate titan or an overzealous genius with too much hubris and too little foresight. He is worse, a do-gooder that believes he is the savior even if he destroys people in the process.
Less known faces are equally compelling. Sasha Lane(Daniel Isn’t Real), who plays a pivotal role, breathes grit and courage into her difficult part. Easily the most outlandish but simultaneously, most likable is Wilson(Desmin Borges). His spy-junky, bunker-having, newspaper clipping sporting self could easily have been ridiculous. He is instead very endearing, especially when the action picks up. The cast is so good, and so good together they bring the best out of each other. It’s a rarity with such a large ensemble cast to have every cylinder firing.
Cory Michael Smith who you last saw as Enigma in Gotham, a role he nailed by the way, is the poster boy for white privilege. Thomas Christie is the blackeyed face of advantage. He is truly chilling especially in later episodes as it becomes clear just who and what he really is. A sycophant with a trust fund and a sociopath for a father, he is just one of many brilliant villains. A hired henchman and adoptive son of sorts to Dr. Christie, leaves a wasteland of destruction behind him. Arby portrayed by Christopher Denham(Shutter Island) is babyfaced evil. Denham nuances a lifetime of experience from placid looks and flexed jaw muscles.
Set pieces excel both in the grimy underbelly of inner cities and the crystalline sterility of corporate laboratories. These are real places and they teem with all the chaos, grime, and joy that comes with them. Edited well with interesting angles the locations become secondary characters with feelings and motivations all their own. These are places, people, and a story that will suck you in no matter how bizarre it gets. Believe me, Utopia goes all the way down the rabbit hole. You are committed to their plight and invested in the cast. They are that good and the story that tight.
Utopia feels eerily prescient. It is a slick, character-driven puzzle box of Russian Dolls that never ends. It’s a leggy hero tale with tons of heart. Maybe with a little Utopia, we could predict the next COVID 19 and prevent it from happening? It’s terrifying, really and the parallels to real-world events make what could have been a fun science fiction action series a straight sci-fi horror. With a killer soundtrack, including Tech N9ne, gifted actors, and a fantastic script, Utopia is a hit. It premieres on Amazon Prime on September 25th, 2020.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.