Utopia Review: A Scary-Good Pandemic Conspiracy Thriller

Timing, they say, is everything and for Amazon's Utopia, the timing could not be more perfect. Based on the cult classic 2013 British television series of the same name, the Gillian Flynn-penned series features comic books, conspiracy theories, a deadly and mysterious flu on the cusp of becoming a horrifying pandemic; elements that feel absolutely and insanely tailor-made for the wild ride that 2020 has been thus far. And it's good.

The series is set in present-day Chicago and follows a group of friends (who initially know each other only via an internet chat board) who are obsessed with the graphic novel "Dystopia." That graphic novel is about a girl named "Jessica Hyde" whose genius father is being held hostage by the evil Mr. Rabbit and forced to create brutal, deadly viruses and bioweapons in exchange for Jessica's safety. Jessica, for her part, is trained by a warrior figure named "Artemis" and tries to keep ahead of Mr. Rabbit and his henchmen, The Harvest, while trying to find and save her father.

For the truly intense fans of the "Dystopia," the book isn't just dark entertainment, it's a narrative that predicted the onset of horrors such as Ebola, SARS, MERS, Zika, and more -- including climate change and population overcrowding, examples of which play out in the real world. When the manuscript for a sequel, "Utopia," is found and put up for sale to the highest bidder at Fringe-Con, the group of friends -- Ian (Dan Byrd), Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Wilson (Desmin Borges), Sam (Jessica Rothe), and Grant (Javon Walton) -- decide to meet up, pooling their money to buy it as they believe the book will give them a clue about more horrors to come, as well as how to stop them.

To say things go awry is an understatement. As the friends soon discover, it's all real. Harvest agents -- including the chillingly emotionless Arby (Christopher Denham) -- show up to kill anyone who has so much as seen "Utopia" while the real-life Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) appears, as she needs "Utopia" to find and save her father. While Jessica ends up with the group of friends as they attempt to escape Harvest and find Utopia, a disaster is brewing in the real world with the emergence of a horrifying new flu targeting children. Scientist Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack) comes into the picture as it’s his lab-grown protein that was served to some of the children who became ill while virologist Dr. Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson) notices that the flu is eerily similar to a strain he discovered in Peru and desperately wants to help stop it.

The series is a lot, but it's a lot in a good way. Flynn, who wrote all eight episodes of the first season as well as serves as the show's executive producer, brings her unique brand of dark intrigue to the story while also layering in just the right amount of humor and humanity. While many of the characters in Utopia feel like caricatures, the series never treats them as though they are jokes. Yes, there are those whose portrayals are turned up to 11, such as Borges' conspiracy nut/doomsday prepper Wilson, but there's never really a point in the series where the concerns and obsession with what "Utopia" holds is presented as mockery. The threat is deadly serious and the fixation with it is treated as such, even if the characters themselves may be fringe.

What works a bit less well, unfortunately, is the portrayal of Jessica Hyde. Lane plays the character with an almost rabid intensity that can be difficult to watch. It is almost entirely one-note throughout, and her interactions with Ian, Becky, Wilson, and Grant are flat, abrasive, and unconvincing. The interactions frequently lack much in the way of chemistry, making it hard to see Jessica as anything more than a raving lunatic, even though you know she's not crazy.

Balancing that out, however, is Cusack's outstandingly creepy Dr. Kevin Christie and Rainn Wilson's Stearns, who is earnest, heartfelt, and perhaps the most human character in the series. Meek and genuinely concerned for people's well-being, his story as the man who knows the most about the mysterious new flu and is positioned as the man who may be able to stop it is, in many ways, the true highlight of the whole season.

What also works well for the series is that it differs significantly from the British series. This isn't just an American remake. It's a different story, in many regards, with some new characters and a grittier setting that gets under the skin with its surprising realism in a way that the shockingly bright British original can't quite match. The series also centralizes its "villain" a great deal and dials back a lot of the dark humor the British series is known for. While that may be a strange choice for fans of the British series (which itself is brilliant in its own way), given the timing of Flynn's Utopia, the absence is a much better fit. Flynn's Utopia is also a bit less violent, though there is still plenty of brutality to go around and a lot of blood to boot.

Utopia is a complex watch that is humorous without being funny and chilling without being terrifying. Packed with memorable performances, it strikes just the right balance with its eerily timely pandemic storyline that still manages to offer some escapism from the real-life horrors quietly unfolding away from our screens. It's engaging, interesting, and unsettling, making it a truly fantastic watch.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Utopia debuts Friday, September 25th on Amazon Prime Video