Utopia review: A bad case of reel imitating real

Written by Ektaa Malik
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September 25, 2020 8:51:28 pm





Utopia is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Utopia cast: John Cusack, Rainn Wilson, Sasha Lane, Dan Byrd and Javon Walton
Utopia creator: Gillian Flynn
Utopia rating: Two stars

A contagious virus with no vaccine, and big pharma scrambling to make millions. No these are not headlines from a newspaper. These are the plot arcs from Amazon Prime Video’s latest big-ticket offering Utopia. It all starts rather innocuously, as things usually do, in an old house in suburban Chicago where a lone original copy of Utopia — a comic book — surfaces. The appearance of Utopia, a sequel to Dystopia, sends the comic book universe into a tizzy, attracting bidders from all over. Enter a group of ragtag young adults who geek out over the comic book. They have never met in real life, but have formed a friendship based on online discussions and dissections of the said comic book. Plans are hatched to lay their hands on Utopia because it has the keys to events that are unfolding around them. The group shares a rather unhealthy obsession of conspiracy theories, but they are not the only ones coveting the comic book. Surely, the protagonist of the comic book herself, Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) too wants a piece of the action. Then there are the trigger-happy bad guys who will not stop at anything to get the comic book in their possession. While the group plays hide and seek with the bad guys, aided by Hyde, a deadly virus has unleashed itself around the US and people are dying in hordes. We meet John Cusack (Kevin Christie) who heads a giant pharma company, and then there is Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson), a virologist, who meanders his way into the middle of it all.

The timing of the show could not have been worse, or best, depending on your interests in the ‘pandemic genre’. The ‘spread of a deadly virus’ has been par for the course in many TV shows, ranging from police-procedurals to medical dramas. House MD, The Good Doctor and even the recent season of The Resident had plots constructed around it. We are familiar with how that pans out, but to have the same theme spread over eight long episodes can be trying. Utopia hits too close to home, and the CDC workers clad in yellow hazmat suit are too reminiscent of the blue PPE kits that medical personnel are wearing around the world as they fight Covid-19.

Do we really want to spend hours seeing what we are dealing with everyday around us? The scene involving helpless parents, who are protesting outside a school where their children are quarantined, is a reflection of what we are undergoing as a society globally. We can’t even gather peacefully or in protest in real life, it can be lethal.

Utopia could perhaps be seen as pertinent to this time, but it could also be perceived to be adding to the anxiety and stress. Helmed by Gillian Flynn, Utopia is a remake of a 2013 British show. The original had received its shares of criticism for being too violent and dark. The American version apparently has toned down the violence quotient, but it is still gory. A particular scene which involves an eye and a spoon will make even the most sturdy of show watchers squeamish. But looking at Flynn’s screenwriting oeuvre, she has no issues with violence. Even in something like Gone Girl, she didn’t shy away from blood and gore: Remember the scene with Rosamund Pike and Neil Patrick Harris? The problem with Utopia is it takes too long to come to the point. We run circles: into plots and subplots and backstories. Many long scenes are used in trying to decode the comic book with help arriving from strange quarters. It doesn’t have the pace of a thriller, nor the gravitas of a ‘pandemic-drama’. The violence detracts from the main plot, which oscillates between the ‘geeks shall save the world from imminent annihilation’ tangent and ‘man is the root cause of all evil’. Maybe at some other time, the show would have made cinematic sense, and we would have marvelled at this alternate world. But this is a bad case of reel imitating real. You are safer watching reruns of your favourite sitcoms instead.

Utopia is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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