[Review] ‘UTOPIA’ a disturbingly prescient binge with ‘GONE GIRL’ author Gillian Flynn pulling the strings

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

UTOPIA

TV-MA, 8 episodes
Creator: Gillian Flynn
Cast: John Cusack, Dan Byrd, Ashleigh LaThrop, Desmin Borges, Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton, Christopher Denham, Cory Michael Smith, Rainn Wilson, and Sasha Lane

Television is either a wonderful invention or the bane of our existence, depending on who you ask. Once predicted to end movies as more people turned their attention to a box with rabbit ears, preferring to get visual stimulation from game shows, westerns, family comedies, and variety programs, television has since evolved in terms of presentation and stories told.

It is a wonderful medium that has proven its worth during an unprecedented year where the public has been asked to remain indoors during a viral pandemic. The days of go outside and play replaced with stay indoors, it’s safer.

Netflix, Amazon, and premium cable were essentially entertainment doomsday preppers with content at the ready. With no live sports, ESPN pushed up releasing the docuseries THE LAST DANCE and made it a 10-week prime-time event. Netflix spoiled subscribers with originals and acquisitions, including THE TIGER KING, which propelled one of the stars, Carole Baskin, to be a contestant on the latest season of DANCING WITH STARS.

As television viewing and binge-watching continue to soar – while theaters struggle to re-open as studio postpone and push back movies – leave it to Amazon Prime to deliver a program that is undoubtedly prescient for our current times.

Its latest, UTOPIA, is a darkly comic suspense drama that subverts geek culture and allows those who find meaning in little details to become part of the action – whether they want to or not. Based on a 2013 British series from creator Dennis Kelly (HBO’s THE THIRD DAY), the Americanized version comes courtesy of Gillian Flynn. The woman that turned the thriller novel on its head with GONE GIRL brings that sort of vivacity to a series that is anything but typical.

The story involves a group of online friends obsessed with a cult graphic novel called “Dystopia” and its unreleased and highly sought-after sequel, “Utopia.” Their volume level of obsessiveness is a few decibels below donning a straitjacket and being ushered into a room with padded walls. They are convinced Dystopia envisaged various deadly contagions. Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges) is a staunch believer and more overly suspicious than the group’s alpha female, Samantha (HAPPY DEATH DAY’s Jessica Rothe). Ian (Dan Byrd) and Beck (Ashleigh LaThrop) are not quite as fanatical, having developed a stronger interest in each other through chatrooms, shared texts, and EMOJIs. Then, there’s Grant (Javon Walton), the group’s youngest member, who is just trying to find a place among those much older than him.

Dystopia has such a strong cult following that people cosplay as the principal characters at different comic-cons, including one that sets this story in motion. As these virtual friends converge and meet each other in person for the first time – to see and hopefully obtain the unearthed Utopia comic – it comes a few weeks after a violent flu pandemic has spread among kids in Alabama and Mississippi. Time out. A pandemic that is surging in the United States?

That’s right.

TV can be a form of escape, where we just tune out reality for a few hours and chill out with our friends from FRIENDS, have dinner with HANNIBAL, or just find ourselves up SCHITT’S CREEK. But a television series largely centered around a viral pandemic during an actual viral pandemic that’s got to be a first. Which is why UTOPIA is so prescient in its arrival. No way Gillian Flynn could have predicted the scenario for her series. Though, it does heighten the curiosity factor.

The pandemic has a connection to the comic, another reason why it is highly coveted. The illustrated panels foretell viruses, human-made diseases, and biowarfare. In the wrong hands, it could be goodbye world. The pages are creepy as all get out with twisted iconography, yet so hard to not want to look. The series is like that, too. You get caught up with its conspiratorial nature that makes it so enthralling. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that needs to be put together.

UTOPIA clings to what has been labeled “cliffhanger fetishism.” In that, each episode ends in such a way that you just have to continue. This was a trademark for 24 with Kiefer Sutherland – where each season took place during a single day, and with each episode representing an hour of the day. Every episode ended in a cliffhanger that made you want to tune in the following week. Thankfully, with Amazon Prime’s delivery, you get to experience all eight episodes without the hassle of waiting.

Much like her novel GONE GIRL, Flynn shocks the viewer with moments that blindside you or up the ante on just how far it can take things. The blood hasn’t even dried and we are hightailing it to some hideout or meeting with a person we think is on the level. We want to draw conclusions but don’t have a writing utensil.

Adding to the overall mystique is the early discovery that the fictional heroine of Utopia, Jessica Hyde, is a real person. The little girl from the comic is all grown up, and Sasha Lane plays her with such intensity. She looks like she took a detour from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and survived desolation. Her mission is to find her father by any means. Jessica’s survival instincts are first-rate. She’s calculating, no-nonsense, and a control freak. What she lacks is empathy. Living on the run, hand to mouth, and alone, Jessica lives with such pain that it is difficult for her to relate to others, including the nerds that know where Utopia is.

Adding more conspiracy fuel is Rainn Wilson as biologist Michael Stearns, the one who invented the viral flu, and John Cusack as Dr. Kevin Christie, a Steve Jobs-type innovator who wants to mass-produce a vaccine that looks to help everyone affected in a very crowded world. They may be the biggest names on this program, but this is Sasha Lane’s show. She’s got a swagger that would make Dwayne Johnson raise an eyebrow, and while she may not be blonde like Charlize Theron she’s just as atomic.

UTOPIA may not be comfortable viewing considering current circumstances. Still, it is a visual page-turner that flips the script on geek fandom and those who have spent endless hours obsessing over a piece of media. The knowledge accumulated, though seemingly pointless for most, is used for the greater good. No longer an innocent bystander as the world moves around you. Now you are the protagonist.

By the time it’s over, you will marvel at how Gillian Flynn was able to concoct this magic trick of a series and make it look as easy as pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Grade: B

UTOPIA will be available Friday on Amazom Prime.

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