As COVID-19 spread across the globe, viewership of Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 outbreak film Contagion spiked. While the virulent disease in that film is far deadlier than COVID-19, the characters’ unified response to finding and distributing a vaccine seems like wishful thinking in a world where the President of the United States is echoing the kind of conspiracy theories and miracle cures that Jude Law’s huckster blogger touts in the film, rather than supporting doctors and scientists. Contagion conjures a mix of hope and despair by showing a pandemic scenario that’s simultaneously better and worse than the one we’re all living through.
Gillian Flynn’s update of the British series Utopia also centers around a pandemic, but it doesn’t offer any of the comfort, only paranoia. In different times, the Gone Girl and Sharp Objects author’s eight-episode show, which releases on Amazon on Sept. 25, would just be a mediocre conspiracy thriller with a cartoonishly evil villain, passive and inconsistent heroes, and a plot that drags on too long. But in an era where some people genuinely believe COVID-19 is a hoax perpetrated by Bill Gates and the liberal deep state, airing a show about a plague engineered by a billionaire tech philanthropist and a global cabal feels irresponsible.
Utopia follows a group of nerds who believe that the plot of the indie graphic novel Dystopia, where a brilliant scientist is forced to make killer viruses to protect his daughter, Jessica Hyde, is actually true. When a never-before-seen follow up to the comic, Utopia, goes up for auction at a comic convention, the group, which had previously only communicated online, meets up to try to buy it. Of course they’re right about the comic telling a real story, and the bad guys, known as The Harvest, will do anything to get Utopia and prevent people from learning about their nefarious goals.
At best, this could be a comic-themed version of The Last Starfighter, but ironically, Flynn seems pretty dismissive of comics as a medium. In the first episode, Samantha (Jessica Rothe), a passionate activist who believes Utopia holds the key to saving lives, attends a fan meetup at the con. When she tries to steer the conversation away from the comic’s mythology to how it predicted Ebola and MERS, the cosplaying guys there give her leery looks and call her a conspiracy nut.
“You want a conspiracy?” she rants. “A few decades ago, a group of you fucking boy assholes managed to trick the world into believing that comic books were serious fucking literature, and now you get to sit around and Joseph Campbell the day away.”
This is pretty insulting to any comic book fans watching Utopia, but it’s music to the ears of Samantha’s fellows, particularly Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges of You’re the Worst), a prepper with a bunker filled with canned food who has taught himself how to dislocate his wrists to avoid being interrogated, but somehow doesn’t own a single gun. Their group is rounded out by Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Kominsky Method), a generic nice girl who believes the comic might hold the secrets to her curing her seizure disorder; Ian (Dan Byrd of Cougar Town), who isn’t a true believer, but is into Becky; and Grant (Javon Walton of Euphoria), a scrappy kid who’s been masquerading online as a young adult.
All their obsessing is vindicated when agents of The Harvest and the real Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane of American Honey and the 2019 Hellboy reboot) show up at the con, and the fans get caught in the crosshairs. While the BBC version of Utopia was a dark comedy, there are few laughs in Flynn’s version, which instead relies heavily on gratuitous scenes of mass murder and dismemberment, and a George R.R. Martin-style grimdark sensibility where likable characters are often abruptly killed.
Jessica is a feral psychopath who treats the protagonists as tools. Yet the Utopia fanatics are quick to forgive her heinous actions, and repeatedly leave Grant in her care. They also seem to instantly forget about the horrific things they go through. At one point, Wilson and Becky talk about how cool it is to be living in the Utopia conspiracy, as they’re sitting in the same room as a friend’s corpse, just a day after Wilson had his eye gouged out.
The conspiracy in question centers on a mysterious flu outbreak killing children in the Midwest. Scientific genius and philanthropist Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack) is the architect of the plague, but when the FDA suggests that his synthetic meat might be responsible, he says that’s a “right-wing conspiracy.” Much of the plot feels like a QAnon checklist, with Christie engaged in the trafficking and indoctrination of children to produce multiple false-flag operations. He helps paint the FDA as bumbling bureaucrats holding back a life-saving vaccine, in an effort to convince people to get shots that are all part of his nefarious goals to ensure everyone earns their “place in this crowded world.” At least Cusack seems to be having fun as he channels a fusion of hoaky paternalism and pure evil that was done better by Harry Groener as Mayor Richard Wilkins in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Cusack’s scheme could be a statement on how easily people can be duped, but the plot is also pretty firmly on the side of anti-vaxxers and pandemic skeptics. While the show was filmed in Chicago, Flynn also buys into propaganda about the city’s lawlessness. When the conspiracy theorists are debating about what to do with the body of a woman Jessica executed, Becky suggests they just leave her in the open, since no one will question finding another shooting victim in the city.
The only real dark comedy in this version of Utopia is unintentional. When schlubby community-college virologist Dr. Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson of The Office) shows up at the site of one of the outbreaks — which has been swiftly contained by the U.S. military — he tries to bluff his way in by asking a soldier if she wants to stop him from fighting “the most fatal flu epidemic in American history.” At that point, 92 people are dead. It’s comical to see how seriously this relatively minor outbreak is taken, in light of the continued real-world debate about the dangers of COVID-19. Maybe things would be different if it was like Utopia’s flu, which is ludicrously 100% lethal and has a cute white girl as a poster-child case. Maybe COVID-19 would be perceived differently if it didn’t primarily kill seniors and people of color.
Flynn channeled a higher-quality brand of paranoia in her novel and subsequent film Gone Girl, which examined how easily the truth can be manipulated to manufacture a crime, or a media narrative. Utopia largely boils down to a MacGuffin hunt, with most of the characters just waiting around or running from place to place without much agency. They’re hunted by generic sociopath Arby (Christopher Denham), who Flynn tries but fails to make sympathetic. The only things that are genuinely evocative about Utopia are the discordant, ominous score by Emmy-winning composer Jeff Russo (Fargo), and the graphic-novel art created by Joao Ruas, which feels like a horror-themed spin on the work Mark Buckingham did on Fables.
Utopia heavily telegraphs its plot twists, leaving viewers waiting for its thinly written characters to catch up. With crises in the real world moving faster, Utopia won’t offer any hope, answers, or even a benign distraction. Hopefully, its aimless mediocrity will also keep it from doing any real damage by inspiring people who think that sharing conspiracy theories online can make them heroes.
All eight episodes of Utopia are now streaming on Amazon Prime.