US remakes of British TV shows are often cannon fodder for critics (see The Inbetweeners, Spaced, Broadchurch), but Amazon Prime Video’s Utopia reckons it can break the trend. Broadcast on Channel 4, the original series was a cat-and-mouse conspiracy thriller which won acclaim over the course of two seasons. A limited audience, despite the glowing reviews, meant the story was agonisingly cut short – and loyal fans have been clamouring for a return ever since. Getting Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn in as showrunner is a good start – can she deliver the goods?
Featuring genuine A-lister John Cusack as the self-proclaimed “extraordinarily dedicated scientist” Kevin Christie, Flynn’s remake reaches for the stars with its higher budget. The first episode – directed by Black Mirror’s Toby Haynes – introduces Ian, Becky, Wilson, Grant and (US newcomer) Samantha as they meet up at a convention to check out the hallowed graphic novel Utopia. Things take a Labyrinth-like turn when characters off the page start appearing in physical form, including Jessica Hyde, played by American Honey’s Sasha Lane who steps into Fiona O’Shaughnessy’s shoes. Sadly, the character’s ethereal presence has been lost in translation, even if her killer instincts remain. Christopher Denham is also much less likeable than Neil Maskell as Arby, who exists here as an amalgamation of murderous doll Chucky and A Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge.
Released in the midst of a global health crisis, Utopia is as timely as they come. Influenza stemming from bats, experimental virology, protests and shady government dealings are all part of the story – mistaking it for the teatime news or your favourite conspiracy podcast would be understandable. One of the worst components, though, is the dodgy humour that Flynn fills the script with. Stakes are lowered with throwaway lines which try to make these characters feel more relatable – creator Dennis Kelly added black comedy, sure, but his actors were really talented. Adeel Akhtar, Alexandra Roach and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett made a wonderful trio, but replacements Desmin Borges, Ashleigh LaThrop and Dan Byrd never come close to replicating their chemistry. The comic book violence is tossed aside too, which makes the whole experience feel like Flynn has decided to play it safe.
At one point, Seven filmmaker David Fincher was all over this adaptation. Collaborating with HBO a year after the UK version was cancelled, he reportedly even cast most of the main roles before leaving over budget concerns. Yet the man behind Mindhunter and Fight Club may have also struggled to outdo Channel 4’s cult series. The fan fervour is one thing, but Utopia’s unadulterated mayhem isn’t replicable – attempting to do so is a lost cause, especially without the genius composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer.
‘Utopia’ arrives on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, September 25