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posted on 2020-10-14 10:45:00 .
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Unfortunately, they are not the only ones interested in obtaining the comic. In fact, anyone who has seen it mysteriously ends up dead, courtesy of a sociopathic hitman named Arby (Christopher Denham, Manhattan), who has no qualms about executing random cosplayers, or even entire families (toddlers included), should his orders require it. Also seeking out Utopia is Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane, American Honey, 2019’s Hellboy), the comic’s famed central character, who is actually real and thinks Utopia holds the secret to finding her long-lost father. Meanwhile, a mysterious deadly virus has begun infecting schoolchildren around the country, and the death count is rising rapidly.
Earn your place in this crowded world
The cast also includes John Cusack (Grosse Pointe Blank) as Dr. Kevin Christie, CEO of a powerful biotech company that manufactures vaccines, along with a few other ethically questionable research programs. He’s an idealist who espouses an especially twisted form of utilitarianism: in lieu of grace at family dinners, every family member must recount what they did that particular day to “earn your place in this crowded world.” Yes, Christie is up to something, most likely nefarious in nature. Rainn Wilson (The Office) plays Dr. Michael Stearns, a nebbishy virologist who suspects the virus currently killing children is the one he discovered in Peru years ago. The series also stars Farrah Mackenzie (Logan Lucky) as Alice, a young girl who falls in with Jessica and her ragtag crew of uber-fans, and Cory Michael Smith (Gotham) as Christie’s son Thomas.
The British version received critical praise for its originality and visual style, offset by strong reservations about its extreme violence, which struck many as unnecessarily gratuitous. The most famous scene involved a torturer using a spoon to gouge out a victim’s eye. That scene is still intact, albeit a bit less graphically depicted.
“I don’t want it for a cartoon effect or for shock value,” Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects), who adapted the series for Amazon, told Deadline Hollywood in August about whether this version would be as violent. “I think we as an audience are past most of that as pure shock value. I want to use violence when it’s effective and appropriate.” That tone is reflected in the series, despite a body count to rival The Boys. When young kids are the victims, for instance, the camera looks away, opting to imply their demise rather than show it on screen.
There’s so much to like about this Utopia. The cast is terrific, the writing is sharp, and the story is compelling and expertly paced, and there are enough sparks of bleak humor to keep the series from being a slog. So what could possibly give me pause about reviewing it? Pretty much the entire central conspiracy, which might have played well in 2013 but hews way too close to the bone in late 2020.
(WARNING: Major spoilers below. Stop now if you haven’t finished the series.)
We don’t discover the full extent of Christie’s nefarious plan until the final two episodes, but it amounts to this. He has deliberately manufactured the viral outbreak that has been killing hundreds of schoolchildren, all for the purpose of panicking the public and getting people to demand that the FDA fast-track approval of an experimental vaccine developed by Stearns, bypassing the usual safety trials.
Christie’s company will then ship out massive quantities of the vaccine worldwide—except it’s not really the vaccine against the virus. Rather, it will sterilize almost everybody who gets the vaccine, essentially curbing population growth for an entire generation to reduce the global population to a mere 500 million so that there will be more precious resources for everyone. Christie is like Marvel’s Thanos, only instead of an Infinity Glove, he’s using a manufactured health crisis to solve what he perceives to be an overpopulation crisis. And there’s a vast global conspiracy backing him.
There are plenty of people who fall into the “morbidly curious” camp—myself included—which is why the 2011 film Contagion experienced a sudden resurgence in popularity as the coronavirus pandemic began to escalate in the United States in March. In fact, some researchers believe that this is an evolved human response mechanism for dealing with threats by learning from imagined experiences, much like a love of horror may exploit our evolved fear system. We seek out being afraid in controlled settings as a means of confronting our fears in a safe environment, and we may seek out pandemic-themed entertainment for similar reasons. And until this year, I would have confidently asserted that people are far better at discerning fact from fiction than the tsk-tsking pearl-clutchers typically give them credit for.
But we’re now several months into the pandemic, with over 200,000 dead in the US alone and a shattered economy. Everyone’s nerves are stretched thin. A good many panicked people are being fed misinformation via a highly coordinated campaign across multiple platforms, reaching to the highest levels of our government. Otherwise rational people are buying into outlandish conspiracy theories about a manufactured virus deliberately released to create demand for a vaccine—except that vaccine is a plot masterminded by Bill Gates so he can secretly microchip us and track our every movement.
There is political pressure to rush approval of a vaccine, skipping the usual safety trials against the advice of experts, and there is general distrust about whether any such vaccine can thus be trusted. QAnon adherents are running for Congress. Others are dismissing the pandemic as a hoax, refusing to take the simplest precautions and making it that much harder to get the outbreak under control. And on and on and on. Is this really the time for Amazon to pour gasoline on the fire, when so many people are in such deep denial that they will choose their preferred fictions over objective reality?
In other words, context matters. In the end, however, I came back to my conviction that good art is supposed to make us feel a little uncomfortable—Utopia just pushes that boundary further than most because of the poor timing of its release. Anyone inclined to take its fictions as fact is going to find abundant fodder to feed their fantasies regardless of whether Amazon had chosen to postpone the series or not. Some people will find Utopia a bit too on-the-nose right now; others won’t understand what all the fuss is about. I trust Ars readers to know which category they fall into and decide accordingly.
Utopia is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Listing image by Amazon Studios
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