Gillian Flynn’s long run of successful thrillers comes to an end with the irritatingly drawn-out, disappointingly oblique Utopia. An adaptation of the British series that aired from 2013 to 2014, Utopia has long bounced around Hollywood: First attached to HBO, with Gone Girl and Sharp Objects author and Widows screenwriter Flynn writing and David Fincher directing, before eventually ending up at Amazon Studios without the latter. Perhaps Fincher’s flair for steadily escalating tension would have helped Utopia, which, despite being about the end of the world, feels curiously stagnant in the seven of eight episodes provided for review. The series incorporates a slew of thematic elements that are eerily timely—an increasingly devastating pandemic, for one—but an overreliance on brutal violence masks the fact that Utopia doesn’t have much to say about the corporate overreach or government listlessness that inspired the show’s concept.
Set in present-day Chicago, Utopia follows a group of unlikely friends whose only unifying trait is their obsession with a comic book called Dystopia. A cult favorite graphic novel, Dystopia is about Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane), a girl whose genius scientist father is taken hostage by the evil Mr. Rabbit. In exchange for keeping Jessica safe from Mr. Rabbit’s bloodthirsty lackeys, the Harvest, her father creates a series of deadly viruses and bioweapons for Mr. Rabbit to use against the rest of the world. While her father is held against his will, Jessica is trained by the warrior woman Artemis, who helps keeps Jessica one step ahead of Mr. Rabbit and the Harvest.
Dystopia is popular for its dark narrative and its gritty protagonist, but in the years since its publication in 2014, its author never released another work—until an unpublished manuscript for a sequel, Utopia, is found while a young woman cleans out her deceased grandfather’s house. Upon realizing that the comic has a devoted following, the woman decides to sell Utopia to the highest bidder at the Fringe-Con conference, where many Dystopia fans converge each year. So four fans who have bonded on Dystopia message boards decide to meet for the first time at the conference, pool their money, and buy Utopia together: Sam (Jessica Rothe), whose father calls her his “save-the-world girl” for comments like “Rallies don’t work; they make us feel better about doing nothing”; Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), who suffers seizures caused by the mysterious Deel’s syndrome; Ian (Dan Byrd), an insurance salesman who has a crush on Becky; and Wilson (Desmin Borges), a doomsday prepper who still lives at home with his family.
Sam, Becky, and Wilson aren’t just regular fans. They believe that Dystopia predicted a number of the worst events in recent years, with messages hidden in the panels and artwork. They’re convinced of virus images concealed as eyeballs, and ascertain country borders recreated in the shape of leaves. They think Dystopia foretold Ebola, MERS, Zika, and various other viruses, and they see in climate change and environmental destruction what Dystopia depicted. Their desire to get their hands on Utopia is because, as Sam puts it to a group of mansplaining fans who laugh off her theories, “This shit is about life. This shit is about doing something, not talking about cartoons doing something.” Maybe Utopia will clue them into what horrible things are coming next—or more importantly, how to stop them.
As interested buyers offer increasingly outrageous amounts for Utopia, the world outside of Fringe-Con mimics the comic book: A flu that specifically targets children is spreading throughout the Midwest, causing school lockdowns and quarantine zones, horrifying parents, and dominating the news. As people search for answers, Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack) comes under scrutiny for a new lab-grown protein product that was provided to some children who became ill, and a virologist, Dr. Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson), takes notice that the young patients exhibit the same symptoms as another flu strain Dr. Stearns studied in Peru years before. Would it be too paranoid to think that these occurrences were connected to Utopia? Or are Sam, Becky, and Wilson onto something?
Mostly abandoning the British version’s black-comedy vibe, Utopia crisscrosses these subplots with each other with a peculiar lack of urgency, obfuscating for its characters what are obviously predictable twists for the audience. There is a disconnect between how slowly the show’s protagonists piece together various elements of this potential conspiracy versus how quickly viewers will, which results in reveals that land anticlimactically and episodes that often seem like they’re moving in slow motion. Characters’ reactions are muted and their intelligence varies as needed by the situation: Villains who have been scheming for years make silly, noticeable mistakes in their plans; characters surrounded by murder move on quite quickly. The show explains this by saying that people are unpredictable, but that feels like an excuse for inconsistent writing. Some members of the ensemble stand out: LaThrop as the beleaguered Becky, desperate to learn whether Utopia holds a cure for her illness; Javon “Wanna” Walton as the Internet-savvy Grant, who is fiercely loyal to his friends; and Sonja Sohn, whose no-nonsense attitude contrasts well with the show’s more unbelievable elements. But others are done wrong by underdeveloped characters, in particular Sasha Lane, whose one-note portrayal of badass Hyde is more a problem of the material than her performance.
Utopia relies on at least one scene of staggering violence per episode to move the plot forward, but all that does is underscore how the show fails at building the apocalyptic stakes. The Dystopia and Utopia comic book pages show an array of horrors—humanoid bunnies feasting on people, children gnawing on bones, burning fields, gigantic insects—and in the show narrative, dozens of people are assassinated. There are extended torture scenes, including eyes gouged out and fingernails pulled off; we also watch a mass shooting. But the show does a poor job communicating the impact of these horrors on its protagonists, and the action scenes are shot so similarly (with askew angles and an electronic score) that they increasingly lack impact. By the final minutes of the seventh episode, with only one episode remaining to wrap things up, Utopia is still talking around the baddies’ motivations instead of making them plain. That amount of obfuscation doesn’t make Utopia intriguing, but frustratingly impenetrable.
“What did you do today to earn your place in this crowded world?” asks one of Utopia’s characters, but you could expand that query to the show itself. Flynn’s series is awash with details that sync up to our current moment: characters worry about disease-carrying bats spreading a pandemic, and complain about the Centers For Disease Control and the Food And Drug Administration working too slowly on a vaccine. They turn to corporations who unironically boast of “disruption” to save them instead of “big government”; they are horrified by perceived harm, including sexual violence, against children. But Utopia doesn’t offer any theories about how our culture changes because of this kind of panic, or comment on the fervent nature of fandom, or examine the anxiety of confronting the potential end of the world. Flynn’s thrillers often resonate because of the power of their observations, but Utopia fails because of the lack of them.