A still from <i>Utopia.</i>

Despite John Cusack’s Charm, ‘Utopia’ Fails to Engage 

Review of Amazon Prime Video’s new series Utopia featuring John Cusack.

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Despite John Cusack’s Charm, ‘Utopia’ Fails to Engage

Utopia on Amazon Prime Video is a show set in the garage clutter, collage inspired, fragmented and messy materialism of modern American teenage, seeped in science, trying to be an apocalyptic dark comedy thriller with desperation. I wonder how Plato would feel about the use of his ideas today.

Set aptly against the back drop off a dry, decaying Mid West in the United States of America, we see how nothing grows or flourishes here and even grass is coloured with neon green paint. The atmosphere of the natural order falling apart pervades the show where we also see how science and technology, make for loneliness and modern maladaptive behaviours of the human race, trying to survive and fight their own mistakes like climate change, ecosystems vanishing, crime and human greed. “This is our undoing” reads a page of the comic book Utopia, a mystic motto of all the danger yet to come. The story, a humble reminder of how delicate and fragile we are in the face of disease and despair, a fact that we now know only too well in the light of the the Coronavirus pandemic. We are not invincible and even though we insist on playing God, it’s time we get off that high horse and take accountability for the mess we’ve made.

The comedy of the show comes from the apocalyptic nature of the story, that when all the adults have failed, it is the comic book “nerds,” the misfits, the kids, the outcasts who will save the world. Most of The Big Bang Theory cast would blend into this series perfectly.

A still from <i>Utopia.</i>
A still from Utopia.
(Photo Courtesy: Amazon Prime Video)

Our gang of “heroes” consist of an unemployed middle-aged man living in perpetual apocalyptic paranoia in a bunker underground, an obsessive compulsive germaphobe, some children abandoned at birth, a teenager dying of a rare disease, a man selling insurance for depressing diseases over the phone in an office all day and an idealistic naive girl who wants to change the world. In a twist of fate, they are brought together to search for a book called “Utopia”.

The metaphor is glaring. The imperfect man searching for a perfect world: sound familiar? Because that’s most of us.

The show is laden with such deep-seated metaphors. In one scene, a character begs to be killed for they are “weak”. Darwin’s theory of evolution and “survival of the fittest” becomes a recurring theme. Purpose, sacrifice and the meaning of life are debated continuously.

Our gang in search for this book gets accidentally embroiled in a sinister plot. They have to save the world before a pandemic kills all while helping settle personal scores. The story tries to tell us that in the face of adversity, sickness, self-doubt and defeat, one must get up, brush themselves off and keep going (which is easier said than done). The story urges its heroes to rise to the occasion, which may come as a boost of confidence for some of us in these dire times. We, too, shall overcome.

Along the way our loveable misfits meet a friendly, ignored and manipulated scientist, who is begging to be heard. They also meet a cold-blooded businessman who is willing to sacrifice the lives of many for a little publicity and to make more money than he knows what to do with. We find men raised to be killing machines devoid of feeling who, finally, begin discovering their humanity and humane people who with time begin to lose touch with reality. There are guardian angels, heroines that sometimes seem the villain and a little romance in misfit paradise.

Bio-warfare, evil governments and viruses. Characters in PPE kits, living and dying in a state of confusion and panic that ensues at the beginning of a pandemic, when no one has any clue - it’s very close to home. The show causes a strong wave of nauseous nostalgia for a time that is only too recent.

A still from <i>Utopia.</i>
A still from Utopia.
(Photo Courtesy: Amazon Prime Video)

Utopia is full of children as some of its most important characters and lays special emphasis on childhood and the importance of raising children with love and care and the disastrous outcomes of abusive upbringing. It’s heartbreaking.

The screenwriting fails the otherwise good story. The screenplay and scene design is simply boring. The action and story progress in repetitive and predictable ways, so much so that the scenes start to blend into one another and are easy to forget. Dialogues are expository, very on the nose and carry the show lazily while the visuals and action don’t really contribute.

Utopia lacks a certain richness, texture and layering which shows in a similar universe, like Black Mirror hit right on the nail, simply because here there isn’t enough material for so many episodes.

The main plot and sub-plots can’t sustain the length. The first two episodes are all set up and almost nothing happens. Third episode onwards the engine starts to warm up but it barely roars and rumbles and although the story is full of quirky, engaging characters and some interesting turn of events, such as the lovely Dr Michael, very relatable Becky and endearing Grant, the writing and visuals don’t deliver.

That John Cusack is as charming and addictive as ever draws you in. You want to see more of him and that is one of the reasons why one keeps watching the series.

The production design and editing, in other Amazon originals like Paatal Lok and Made In Heaven have been breathtaking pieces of art, worthy of museum space, while here the whole thing lacks finesse, believability and constantly betrays that this is a TV show set. The suspension of disbelief fails. The actors are unable to shine in light of these problems. With large promises, with Gillian Flynn at the helm, and as the remake of an already well received British show, this series, unfortunately, falls flat.

Rating: 2.5 Quints out of 5.

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