Review: Utopia – Series 1 / Cert: 18 / Directors: Marc Munden, Alex Garcia Lopez / Screenplay: Dennis Kelly, Mark Aldridge, Huw Kennair-Jones, Clare McDonald / Starring: Paul Higgins, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Alexandra Roach, Neil Maskell, James Fox, Geraldine James, Simon McBurney, Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Adeel Akhtar, Oliver Woolford, Michael Smiley / Release Date: March 11th
Now here’s a tricky thing to review; we suspect you’ve all seen Utopia and that you already have a fairly robust opinion. If you haven’t seen it, then you’re going to want this box set; it really is “compelling”. In fact, it’s hard to describe this series without using the word “compelling” far too often (but we’ll do our best). From the stunning opening scene, you’re going to feel compelled (there we go again) to watch the rest of it, even if you don’t actually like it that much; and there are plenty of reasons not to like it. We’ll come to that in a moment.
For the uninitiated, Utopia tells the story of a group of comic book fans in search of a lost manuscript by a mysterious and apparently mad writer, only to discover a dark conspiracy with not-so-hilarious consequences. Classic graphic novels have often been inspired by cinematic techniques; so when Zack Synder filmed Watchmen (2009), the reverse was bound to be a unqualified success. Except that it wasn’t; not entirely. Snyder was too slavish to original images; the page and the screen are not the same. But Utopia uses the stylistic tropes of a comic book with no source material looking over its shoulder; the result is, at times, visually dazzling. This comic book feel also allows Utopia to make many things work that would not with a more conventional piece. The plot is far-fetched and some characters are just a bit too larger-than-life. But that visual disconnect with reality lets you buy into what is, essentially, a fantasy world (even if it is supposed to be real); a process that is greatly assisted by some terrific performances from most of the cast. Special mention must go here to Neil Maskell (Kill List) as Arby: overweight, middle-aged, apparently suffering from asthma and yet one of the most terrifying screen villains we’ve come across. This is a psychopath who comfort-eats and, on occasion, manages to come across with such wide-eyed and genuine innocence that you actually warm to him. Quite an achievement for a character who cold-bloodedly kills anyone, including children.
Of course, this is where Utopia has attracted great controversy. This is a very violent story and, it must be said, this reviewer was beginning to dislike it by the time episode 3 started with the now notorious school massacre. At this point we’ve already had some pretty nightmarish acts of violence and torture but this is actually the third time in the story that children are killed, even if the deaths were “off screen”. In a sense this actually made these killings all the more unpalatable. Utopia is also clearly influenced by Quentin Tarantino (in several aspects) and makes the correct decision to show the consequences of violence (indeed, this is referred to in some of the box set’s featurettes). It seems somehow cowardly not to do so when the victims of violence are children; a point made all the sharper by only showing one of Arby’s child victims blurred and out of focus before he is shot. Was this an artistic decision or was this to get by censorship? Perhaps both; it’s difficult to imagine anyone would be willing to watch children killed with the visual brutality that Utopia opts for throughout the rest of the series. But after a while you start to become desensitised by the violence; even that against children. That, of course, is the point. What’s more, this is a story about children; by the end you realise that those scenes of brutality and their desensitising effect are essential to tell this morally ambiguous story as well as it can be told. To leave children out of Utopia’s disturbing brutality would have actually been dishonest. If you find yourself beginning to dislike Utopia then the chances are that it will have won you over by the time you make it to the end. It’s worth the discomfort; they were right and this reviewer was probably wrong to get so hot under the collar while watching it. Or was that just the reaction creator Dennis Kelly wanted? Actually, it probably was; after all, it was the rational response.
But even if you can cope with the violence, Utopia is not a faultless piece of television. While the use of colour and composition constantly remind you of the highest quality graphic novel, it does, occasionally, start to look a little bit like a film studies project with a ludicrously high budget. It’s just a bit too self-conscious; it is, perhaps, just trying a bit too hard. There’s also a repetitive rhythm to Utopia. You don’t just become desensitised to the violence; those confrontations even start to become boring. Scene after scene of “if you don’t do this, then I’ll do that” (and you know they will, no matter how ruthless) begin to turn into Utopia’s vicious but perhaps unimaginative signature. You might find these observations a little churlish and you’d probably be right; Utopia is a remarkable piece of television even if it isn’t perfect. But you’d be disappointed if we just said it was dazzling roller coaster of mind-bending plot twists and visceral storytelling. So we won’t; even if it is a fair summing up of this television landmark.
You’ll also be pleased to hear that the review bumph indicates that it says “series one” on the box. Can we sit through all that again? We suspect it’ll be worth it.
Extras: The World of Utopia / Fly on the Wall featurette / Analysis of stunt scene / Deleted scenes