Coming out in France 30th October on Amazon Prime Video, UTOPIA is the American remake of the 2013 British TV series of the same name. In this new version, Utopia is the sequel to a fringe comic book named Dystopia. The manuscript of the unpublished comic Utopia is found by accident by a young couple who decide to auction it at an indie comic book convention. Die-hard fans of the comic believe Dystopia prophesied several virus outbreaks that have been killing people around the world for the past few years. The story follows a small group of conspiracy theorists, obsessed with the comic, who are dedicated to retrieving Utopia, to prevent future virus pandemics and save the world.
A TV show around a comic book
With this remake being released only seven years after the original show, comparison between UTOPIA (2013) and UTOPIA (2020) is inevitable. The comic book Utopia itself does not exist outside the show yet. Brazilian illustrator Joao Ruas’ artwork, commissioned especially for the show and taking inspiration from Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, is absolutely stunning. The intricate details included in the pages are used to feed the plot. With mysterious clues hidden inside the pages, the surrealistic style adds an unsettling weirdness to the story. Paul Miller’s psychotic graphic novel style, in the British version, looked like the chaotic nightmares of a schizophrenic. In contrast, Dystopia and Utopia’s sleek American indie comic style is fascinating. Its beauty pulls the readers into a psychedelic hallucination where the laws of science and morality seem distorted and warped.
Easy to watch
In UTOPIA (2020), the dark British sense of humour and fragmented puzzle-style storytelling are gone. On the contrary, the plot is laid out clearly. By the end of the first episode, we know who the good guys and the bad guys are. This makes the show much easier to watch. The violence is also taken down a notch in the American version. With the anti-hero in fiction if you want to get the plot going, you need to make your antagonist worse than your protagonist. As a result, it leads to the villain being extra evil and ultra-violent. That could explain why the characters in UTOPIA (2020), somewhat appear less charismatic than in the 2013 original TV series.
A bland reboot of the 2013 cult show?
The characters are depicted cleaner and better behaved than their previous British incarnations. The absence of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll make them seem a bit dull. However, being now filled with good intentions, they become a lot easier to identify with. Eventually, we end up caring about whether they succeed in their mission or not. As for the hitmen going after them, they have lost their terrifying creepiness and move around clumsily like a couple of chatty Pulp Fiction stand-ins. These changes make us wonder whether these creative choices are solely due to cultural differences (between American puritanism and a British punk attitude) and no future heritage?
Sam: an american hero
There is a new character in UTOPIA (2020) quite representative of these changes. Sam (Samantha) is a wholesome American girl: smart, young, driven, long blond hair, a dungaree wearing girl next door with a strong moral compass. She has decoded most of the hidden messages in the first comic Dystopia. These clues point directly to the several virus outbreaks humanity has been victim of recently. Sam is convinced that the sequel Utopia holds the keys to preventing future epidemics. This charater is a classic American hero, the representation of hope and of the small people going after the big bad corporations.
A wake-up call
Utopian and dystopian fiction in literature and film have been used as warnings, in order to highlight what is wrong with our societies, showing us what will happen in the future, if we do not change our ways. UTOPIA (2013) did exactly that. It was quirky, smart, shocking, and violent. It was meant as an electroshock to alert us on the horrors we could be facing in a few years. The original version asked the question: “what would you do if these horrible things happened to you?”. We watched those flawed individuals, with strong personalities and irreconcilable goals struggle to survive the end of the world. It did what fiction does best and made the viewers wonder “what if?”. UTOPIA (2013) was designed as a wake-up call.
In UTOPIA (2020) as well, the heroes are thrown into a mad world in which they must adjust or die. The difference is, in 2020, aren’t we awake already? UTOPIA (2013) was scary because of its cold, slow-paced creepiness. UTOPIA (2020) is scary because it hits close to home. The reason why Sam and her friends do not have time to mourn the loss of their old lives, is because the world needs saving right now: the end of the world is already here. The anticipation has been replaced by the imperative need for immediate action.
An updated UTOPIA for a changed world
We need to note that UTOPIA (2020) has been commissioned by Amazon in 2018. Technically, it has nothing to do with the current situation in the world. Still, as viewers, we cannot stop our brains from drawing parallels between the show and what is happening around us right now. That is why Sam is emblematic of a generation. She looks like the Friday’s school strike for climate teenagers. Or she could be an eco-activist from Extinction Rebellion who cleans grafitis. She knows she must fight to save the world because if she does not, then who will?
Will a makeover be enough?
Early in the series, to escape the hitmen after them, the main characters need to change their physical appearance. Sam goes from Granola Girl to Goth, her transformation is the most radical of the group, she is completely unrecognizable. Short black hair, black clothes, black eyeliner, spikes, she goes from someone positive, with a sunny disposition, to somebody grim, who now sees the world in black. To adapt, to fit in and survive this world around us that is changing, we also need to change who we are. But will a makeover be enough?
Is UTOPIA worth watching?
Fans of the Office US will be happy to rediscover Rainn Wilson in a dramatic role as a scientist faced with a moral dilemma. As for the overall show, whether they find it fun or not will depend on the viewer’s sensibilities. In the first episode, Sam argues that unless fiction depicts reality, it has no artistic value. Considering the numbers of shows coming out of streaming platforms these days, we can safely say that the similarities between UTOPIA (2020) and reality are just unfortunate coincidences. Rather than asking “what if” UTOPIA (2020) makes us wonder “what can we do now?”. For that, if nothing else, the show is relevant and powerful. Finally, we can only wish that this show ages badly, so that, in a few years, we can look back at it and call it nothing more than a fun dystopian work of fiction.