The Weekend Australian - Review
FIRST WATCH GRAEME BLUNDELL
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