The Weekend Australian - Review

FIRST WATCH GRAEME BLUNDELL

- Entertainment · Comics · Movies · Geek Culture · Amazon Prime · Amazon · United Kingdom · Channel 4 · Margaret Thatcher · United States of America · HBO · Hollywood · Hollywood · David Fincher · House of Cards (U.S. TV series) · Gone Girl · Sherlock · Benedict Cumberbatch · Black Mirror · Middle East · Jorge Luis Borges · Arctic · The Network · The Network · Mindhunter · Gillian Flynn · Toby Haynes · Brexit: The Uncivil War · Stephen Frears · Charlie Brooker · Dan Byrd · Jessica Rothe · Christopher Denham · Michael Stearns · Rainn Wilson

Ama­zon Prime’s new se­ries Utopia is not to be con­fused with Rob Sitch’s satire of the same ti­tle, which deals with our gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach to what it deems the “greater good” when it comes to in­fra­struc­ture in this coun­try.

This new drama – which does have its comedic mo­ments, and they’ll cer­tainly sur­prise you – is an adap­ta­tion (or reimag­in­ing) of an orig­i­nal 2013 Bri­tish se­ries cre­ated by Den­nis Kelly about an un­likely group of con­spir­acy nerds, and a graphic novel that some­how con­tained warn­ings of high level gov­ern­ment treach­ery in its pan­els, who find them­selves on the run from deadly as­sas­sins hired by a group of cor­rupt politi­cians called “The Net­work”.

A cult hit, its run was trun­cated by UK net­work Chan­nel 4, pos­si­bly – it was said at the time – be­cause of its “blood-spurt­ing mayhem” and sto­ry­lines that, ac­cord­ing to The Guardian, in­censed the Bri­tish tabloids by sug­gest­ing that Mar­garet Thatcher’s gov­ern­ment was backed by “de­ranged MI5 agents with swastikas carved into their stom­achs”.

Of course it was more likely small au­di­ences caused its demise rather than what its cre­ator called the “broad, big, vi­o­lent, ag­gres­sive stuff”. But while it never screened in the US, its themes and aes­thetic im­pressed HBO, which de­cided on a re­make sev­eral years ago, sign­ing on Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor David Fincher, who had also con­quered TV with his se­ries House of Cards and Mind­hunter, along with nov­el­ist and screen­writer writer Gil­lian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame.

But Fincher, some­what no­to­ri­ously sin­gle­minded, fell out with HBO and the deal went to Ama­zon Prime, with Flynn writ­ing and showrun­ning the project un­der a new over­all deal with the writer, who had also worked on the suc­cess­ful TV adap­ta­tion of Sharp Ob­jects.

And it’s now di­rected by the clever Toby Haynes, who not only did some bril­liant episodes on the in­no­va­tive Sher­lock with Bene­dict Cumberbatc­h but also di­rected the ac­tor in Brexit: The Un­civil War, the tele­movie that ex­plored the lat­eral po­lit­i­cal cam­paign be­hind one of the most con­tested and con­tro­ver­sial gov­ern­ment ref­er­en­dums in mod­ern his­tory.

He’s a di­rec­tor with great cin­e­matic acu­ity and an ob­vi­ously em­pa­thetic way with ac­tors, clever at get­ting strong, clear, funny per­for­mances across the board, and build­ing the sto­ry­telling around them. He also has a gift for hitch­ing up with good writers.

To il­lus­trate, he tells a story of be­ing tu­tored by di­rec­tor Stephen Frears when he was at film school. “The best piece of ad­vice I can give you is to find the smartest per­son in the room and stand be­hind them,” he told Haynes.

“I’ve al­ways done that with my writers”.

And Haynes cer­tainly counts Flynn among the best he’s worked with, who have in­cluded Black Mir­ror’s Char­lie Brooker and Brexit’s James Gra­ham. “She’s got quite a pulpy side to her,” he told Col­lider. “She’s a big comic book fan, and she loves pulpy movies and pulp stuff, so it’s re­ally nice to see that side re­ally ex­pressed, and to see what she does with that.”

The eight-part se­ries fol­lows the ad­ven­tures of four newly ac­quainted friends who for some time have been con­nect­ing on­line af­ter dis­cov­er­ing a shared ob­ses­sion with a strange, some­what ar­cane graphic novel called “Dystopia”.

The plot of the comic book cen­tres on a char­ac­ter called Jessica Hyde, the daugh­ter of a ge­nius sci­en­tist who is be­ing held by an evil fig­ure called Mr Rab­bit. He was kid­napped by Mr Rab­bit’s se­cret hench­men, known as The Har­vest, who made Daddy Hyde cre­ate ter­ri­ble viruses. Jessica must some­how race to save her fa­ther and rid the world of the pan­demic caused by these dis­eases.

It seems Dystopia pre­dicted pan­demics like Ebola and the Mid­dle East res­pi­ra­tory syn­drome known as MERS, and warns of bio war­fare, so the group of friends – ob­sessed with the hid­den mean­ings in the novel – is in­trigued by ru­mours of a se­quel called “Utopia”, which they be­lieve is full of answers – some­thing the world needs to guard against these im­mi­nent threats.

The friends – Becky (Ash­leigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd), Wil­son Wil­son (Desmin Borges) and Sa­man­tha (Jessica Rothe) – learn that an ul­tra­rare copy of Utopia is be­ing put up for auc­tion by a naive cou­ple who dis­cov­ered it in an in­her­ited aban­doned house at a comic con­ven­tion called FringeCom, where comic fans gather to meet with cre­ators. They meet for the first time at the con­ven­tion hop­ing to bid for Utopia so that to­gether they can ex­plore their the­ory that the comics ac­tu­ally pre­dict the world’s pan­demics and how to avoid them.

The plot is straight for­ward enough to start with but then a strange street urchin called Grant (Javon Wal­ton) en­ters the story, also de­ter­mined to gain ac­cess to Utopia, along with the men­ac­ing Arby (Christo­pher Den­ham) and Michael Stearns (Rainn Wil­son), who also pay a visit to the pent­house where the auc­tion is be­ing held to re­trieve the valu­able item.

It’s oddly light­hearted to start, with some omi­nous fore­bod­ings that em­anate from the comic strip it­self, and the fact that the US is suf­fer­ing an in­fluenza pan­demic and the ice is melt­ing rapidly in the Arc­tic.

The world is un­der threat. Ev­ery TV screen con­tin­u­ally re­peats the same footage of suf­fer­ing and angst, all of it eerily pre­scient, but keep in mind Flynn wrote it some time ago. “I started writ­ing Utopia al­most seven years ago – I was preg­nant with my daugh­ter at the time and she now has teeth, hair, opin­ions and a deep abid­ing love of uni­corns,” she says in a pro­ducer’s note. “We filmed last year in Chicago – this story that touches on a world-chang­ing pan­demic – and fin­ished edit­ing in quar­an­tine.”

She drolly points out that the se­ries, “de­spite the sur­real res­o­nance”, is not a med­i­cal pro­ce­dural or even a story about a pan­demic. “This ver­sion of Utopia is ul­ti­mately a story about truth, spin, con­spir­acy, friend­ship, courage and bun­nies.”

The young char­ac­ters in it are adorable too, their cheery voices bounce loonily through the open­ing scenes as Flynn es­tab­lishes them and the world of the comic it­self, un­moored at this

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