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Review: Utopia

Written by TV, TV Reviews

When fans of the original Utopia (2013-2014) learnt the show was getting a big-budget American remake, they cheered. The show’s brilliance isn’t always easy to tease out, but if anyone knows how to do subtlety, it’s the Americans.

What Amazon Prime released on 25 September suggests otherwise. Where the original was vibrant, disturbing and disorientating, the remake is bland, gratuitous and confusing.

Start with the plot. Both versions of Utopia concern an eponymous graphic novel, the comic book nerds who have it, and the shadowy organisation hellbent on getting it. The first of the original’s two series uses this simple premise to tell a compelling story over six hours of television. The remake gives away the main points of this story in its first five minutes.  What does it do with the rest of its runtime?

Credit: IMDb

Faff about. A character is introduced in the first episode who wasn’t present in the original: Sam, an impassioned political activist. We’re told all this instead of shown, but whatever. Utopia is about mostly powerless individuals doing their best to escape a powerful group they can’t control. A more overtly political narrative might give that theme some renewed social relevance, especially given the heightened presence of protest in 2020. It might also give the show a backbone beyond what fans are expecting from the original, and help it stand on its own two- Oh, nope. She gets killed in the second episode. Never mind.

She’s killed by Jessica Hyde, which is the closest the show gets to a main character. It’s not controversial to say that introducing a character just to kill them is cheap. It’s usually only seen in horror, or films suffering from the ‘bring out your gays’ trope. One quickly sees that it’s used in the Utopia remake because the writers had no other way of showing the audience who Jessica Hyde is.

Sasha Lane as Jessica Hyde, Credit: IMDb

The original plunges her into the world of ‘the Network’, and shows us that she’s smart and ruthless through the challenges presented by the plot. In the remake, the plot is all out of order, which is costly. Explaining crucial plotpoints too soon removes the mystery that made the original great. Other crucial plotpoints, on the other hand, are explained later in the remake than in the original, including the Network’s evil plan. As a result, the stakes of the show go undefined for several episodes, making it vague and unengaging. There is no plot to speak of that tests the characters, so we have no way of knowing what they’re like. Jessica Hyde is meant to be dangerous, but when someone in the remake shouts at her “you’re Jessica Hyde!”, it rings hollow.    

In a remake that lacks the stakes of the original, another aspect that suffers is the gore. In the original, it’s shocking, and often completely unaccompanied by music. It’s unnerving, and helps establish that characters will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. In the less character driven remake, the purpose of the gore is less clear. It was part of the original, so the creative leads likely felt like it sort of had to be in the remake. Instead of silence, though, here it’s often accompanied by music. As a result, it feels like something out of an underwhelming action movie, and not a show that’s capable of depicting violence without celebrating it.

The original UK Utopia (2013), Credit: IMDb

Of course, being underwhelmed is not a rare feeling while watching the show. The original Utopia is interesting just to look at and listen to. The music is textured and claustrophobic, but never overused. It’s weird, without being overdone. The cinematography is disorientating, in a perfect match for how the characters feel after having their lives upended in trying to outrun the Network. The colour palette pastiches the saturated look of comic books.

The remake is lacking in all the things that made the original so good, resulting in a boring mess

All of that is absent from the remake. Instead, the aesthetics of the show are competent but uninspired. Flat lighting, drained colours and forgettable music ensure that the new Utopia is one of the worst things art can be: boring.

In what might be a first, though, it is simultaneously dull and dangerous. The original revolves around a virus that the Network intend to spread to control the human population. The remake decides to double down on the pandemic conspiracy, and includes references to bats, SARS and vaccine hoaxes. I know. The show was filmed in 2019, but the decision not to delay the show’s release a year or so is astounding. Watching it in the current social climate colours it as insensitive and even socially irresponsible. The last thing that viewers in 2020 want is a show that tells the conspiracy theorists they’re in the right.

There we have it, then. Just as America came for Skins, The Young Ones and Peep Show, it turned its attention to Utopia. Fans felt queasy about a remake since an earlier, failed attempt was announced in 2014. All they get this time round is the right to utter a half-hearted “told you so”.

Rating: 2/5

Credit: Amazon Prime Video

Last modified: 30th September 2020

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