Over the last decade, most science-fiction fans have experienced at least some level of teen-dystopian-series fatigue. After Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy took over the world, movies and shows about young people on the far side of an apocalyptic event started cropping up everywhere. There were some good tales (The CW’s The 100) and some not-so-great ones (like the Divergent trilogy), but even the best ones piled up until they made fans skeptical of new additions to the subgenre.
So Hulu’s new dystopian-future YA series Utopia Falls was already facing an uphill battle with science-fiction fans, even before it introduced the second half of the show’s premise: rigidly socially controlled teens in a oppressive regime rediscover ancient hip-hop, then use music and dance to rebel against authority. It sounds downright corny, but by blatantly merging other hit teen shows and movies, the creators have set up an all-or-nothing gamble. Utopia Falls seems designed to either draw fans in quickly, or turn them off by the middle of the first episode.
On its surface, the storyline does seem outlandish. But really, what better genres to use to question the status quo than hip-hop and science fiction? When hip-hop first emerged, it almost immediately attracted frustrated artists who wanted to provide social commentary about the ills facing a marginalized group of people. And science fiction is often literally a forward-thinking genre, a way to imagine new ways of life, and the perils humanity could face if it continues on a path of destruction.
Created by Canadian filmmaker R.T. Thorne and Dark Matter and Stargate producer Joseph Mallozzi, Utopia Falls is set in a futuristic city called New Babyl, about 400 years in the future. The city is divided, Panem or Divergeiverse-style, into four sectors: Industry, Progress, Nature, and Reform. The people of these factions are, respectively, the city’s builders, thinkers, growers, and (perceived) troublemakers. Most of the citizens in Reform are there to redeem themselves for past wrongs through restorative justice — except for the children of transgressors, who are sent to Reform along with their families, and must remain there until a committee decides their fates after their 18th birthdays, or their parents are redeemed, whatever comes first. But the rest of the Sectors are dedicated to keeping the city running.
New Babyl’s populace is governed by Chancellor Diara (Alexandra Castillo) and the other members of the Tribunal, and protected and controlled by a militant police force led by the villainous Authority Phydra (Kate Drummond). The city is meant to represent an idyllic future. The idea is that humans of old allowed their differences to drive them into ruin, and the city’s founder, Gaia, created New Babyl as a fresh start for humanity. It’s both a literal and figurative bubble — protected from the outside world by a force field, and completely cut off from human history. Vague stories of the strife ancient humans suffered are used to justify the way the current government keeps the populace in line and uses propaganda to make them fear to step outside of their prescribed way of life.
New Babyl’s children are expected to fulfill their sectors’ respective duties, but they’re also expected to train in the arts, with the goal of being picked for The Exemplar, an entertainment competition where two dozen 16-year-old candidates compete for the chance to become New Babyl’s cultural ambassador. Given that New Babyl is cut off from the rest of the world (and may be the only inhabited city in existence), that title doesn’t make much sense. But since the populace has nothing to do but meet their quotas and vote for a winner of the Exemplar, the competition largely seems like entertainment to keep the masses happy.
The children are all vocalists, dancers, and musicians. No other art forms are encouraged, and the ways they’re allowed to perform are strictly regulated. The vocalists sing “classic” pop songs that are approved by the Tribunal. Dancers perform a sort of combination of contemporary dance and ballet, not as avant-garde as modern dance, but full of leaps, pirouettes, and sweeping arm motions. They’re all accompanied by musicians, who mostly seem to be regulated to playing the piano.
This year’s Exemplar candidates include Aliyah (Robyn Alomar), a Progress-sector dancer whose father is in the Tribunal; her friend and potential love interest, Tempo (Robbie Graham-Kuntz); Sage (Devyn Nekoda), a quiet dancer from the Nature sector; Tempo’s friend Apollo (Phillip Lewitski), a musician from Industry; Brooklyn (Humberly González), an Industry vocalist/dancer who comes in bucking the system by daring to personalize her issued uniform; and vocalist Bohdi (Akiel Julien) and singer/dancer Mags (Mickeey Nyugen), two friends from the maligned Reform sector, who are shocked that they were both allowed to compete.
The candidates’ first group dance performance expresses the city’s imposed artistic limitations very clearly. When they initially arrive at the Exemplar training facility, they’re stilted and dull. The singers, accompanied by the musicians, belt out a beautiful but bloodless cover of Alessia Cara’s “Wild Things.” On a technical level, the dancing is solid, too. The jetés are high, the pirouettes are clean, the movements sweeping and fluid. But it’s dull and forgettable, and the head of the Exemplar, Mentor Watts (Huse Madhavji), rips the performance apart.
Then, during a secret off-campus excursion, a behind-the-scenes figure pushes Aliyah and Bohdi toward a strange discovery: hidden in the forest near the Exemplar training facility is a hidden cave full of art and books from the past. Soon, they discover that it also houses an artificially intelligent library system called The Archive (voiced, in an amusing bit of stunt casting, by Snoop Dogg) that houses information about ancient humans, particularly focusing on long-lost art and music.
Aliyah and Bohdi are almost immediately hooked on hip-hop. As a stigmatized Reform resident, Bohdi particularly identifies with the messages of frustration and rebellion in ’80s and ’90s East Coast hip-hop, and he begins weaving verses from Mos Def (“Mathematics”), Nas (“Hate Me Now”) and his favorite artist, The Notorious B.I.G. (“The Sky’s the Limit”) into his performances. As the performers’ Archive knowledge colors their Exemplar routines, alarm bells are raised for the Tribunal and Authority. The city’s leadership claims to celebrate diversity (this appears to be a world where racism and homophobia no longer exist), but they view any personal expression as “disharmony” and vanity that will be detrimental to the common good.
It’s endearing and amusing to watch the young performers figuring out how to bop and body-roll. At first, they’re enthusiastic, but stiff and awkward. They aren’t sure how to express themselves comfortably, outside of the sweeping, dramatic motions they’ve been taught. The movements are as foreign to them as the music. But as they grow more confident with the material (and study ancient dance routines from The Archive), they begin to incorporate more elements of hip-hop dance into their routines, including formations, waterfalls, and breakdancing.
The dancing in Utopia Falls is entertaining and well-executed (particularly Tempo’s high-energy, acrobatic solos and Sage’s fluid flamenco performance), but the performance interludes aren’t the most compelling thing about the show. They take a back seat to the plot. For most of the 10-episode season, the characters don’t even seem entirely invested in who wins the Exemplar competition. They aren’t fighting to get the big solo, or fretting that their entire dance careers will be ruined if they fail to catch a company director’s eye during the big showcase. Instead, they’re risking everything to connect with a past that was stolen from them.
At first glance, Utopia Falls appears to be a run-of-the-mill teen show, featuring actors attractive enough to be on The CW, and blending familiar elements from The Hunger Games, Divergent, Glee, and the 2000 cult-classic ballet movie Center Stage. But the mysteries that begin to unfold through the first season give the story meat and originality. Once the teens deviate from The Tribunal’s norms, they face immediate consequences. Their supposedly peaceful city reveals its hypocrisy and oppression, and the government proves comfortable with forceful tactics.
Utopia Falls’ teenagers can be painfully naive, and the story periodically waves away pertinent details where they might get in the way of the story. It’s unclear, for instance, why children would be stuck in the Reform sector, even after their malefactor parents die. And if technique isn’t enough to win the Exemplar competition, how are performers expected to inject “spirit” into their routines, when any form of self-expression is discouraged and even criminalized?
Utopia Falls is essentially trying to tell several stories at once. It asks how people can learn from their histories while erasing all cultural differences, and flattening centuries of human life into a cautionary tale in the name of peace and prosperity. There are teen love triangles, the mysterious string-pulling behind-the-scenes figure, a government conspiracy, and a city-wide, televised dance competition, all happening at the same time.
None of this would function if the Utopia Falls team didn’t clearly understand just how far they are asking their audience to suspend their disbelief. But as corny as it is, the show takes itself just seriously enough to be fun. It’s manufactured and familiar, but for fans of hip-hop and science fiction — for people who still find themselves drawn to this familiar throwback genre, even after a decade of overuse — it’s worth a second look.
All episodes of Utopia Falls season 1 are available on Hulu now.