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Utopia review: Gillian Flynn’s big-budget remake says so long to subtlety

Amazon’s new version of Dennis Kelly’s conspiracy thriller is a little on the nose in the throes of the pandemic

Ed Cumming
Thursday 24 September 2020 12:09 BST
Amazon Prime's Utopia trailer

Plans were afoot for an American version of Utopia almost as soon as the British series aired in 2013. Dennis Kelly's Channel 4 conspiracy thriller, which revolved around a comic that seemed to predict global diseases, was sharp, violent, original and darkly funny, but could also, like so many British programmes in contrast to their wealthy American cousins, have used a more generous budget.

HBO initially planned to make the new version, with the Gone Girl duo of Gillian Flynn and David Fincher writing and directing. Kelly, Flynn and Fincher was a tasty prospect, but evidently not mouthwatering enough as it ran into money trouble. In 2018, Amazon acquired the project without Fincher. They didn't run into money trouble. As is so often the case, and I don't think this is mere Limey prejudice, the new version says so long to subtlety, although it retains much of the intricacy of the original. The joy of Utopia is the way it plays graphic novel nerdishness against itself, real mysteries wrapped in pretend mysteries.

In this first episode, a group of nerds is planning to meet offline for the first time at Fringecon, a comic book convention in Chicago where the star attraction – for them at least – is a recently discovered copy of Utopia up for auction. It's the fictional comic sequel to a famous fictional comic, Dystopia, which seemed to predict several real-world diseases. 

There's insurance salesman Ian (Dan Byrd), surely-too-hot-to-be-into-comics Samantha (Jessica Rothe), beardy weirdy Wilson (Desmin Borges), whose surname is also Wilson, and Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), who suffers from a mysterious illness. Then there's the enigmatic Grant (Javon Walton), about whom the other fans have no information other than he is wealthy.  

These hardcore fans, who scan the intricate drawings in Utopia for prophecies, are depicted in sharp relief to the regular fans, who dress up as the characters and see it as just another story. They aren't the only ones interested in the book. A stranger turns up and pays £20,000 cash for the copy. Soon after him, two goons from something calling themselves the Harvest arrive and set about shooting him and everyone connected with the magazine. Finally Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) arrives, also on the trail of the book. It's less bloody than the original, but there's still plenty of death.

Our heroes are meant to be sassy outsiders, the dialogue sometimes strays into teen-movie territory, and I found myself wishing everything was 30 per cent sharper. We can see what's coming, even when the characters can't, which reduces the tension.

One risk of taking so long over an idea, as any freelancer knows, is that events are liable to catch up with you. Utopia's premise, that a comic has been predicting global epidemics, seems a little on the nose in the throes of the panny-d. Another risk of delay is that other people have the same idea. Between Watchmen and The Boys, and even Deadpool, there has been no shortage of recent work that undermines graphic novel premises while availing itself of their attractions. Amazon's own iffy Al Pacino vehicle, Hunters, had some of the same mix of gloss and violence. Utopia is more charming, and it might prove worth the wait, but it's hard to say. On the evidence of the first episode, this is big budget but low stakes: a very American utopia. 

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