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Imaginative ‘Utopia,’ shot in Chicago, creates a world even crazier than our own

Geeks try to save the universe in a delightfully bizarre Amazon series from ‘Gone Girl’ author Gillian Flynn, with a cast including John Cusack, Jessica Rothe and Rainn Wilson.

Jessica Rothe (from left), Ashleigh LaThrop, Dan Byrd and Desmin Borges play chatroom friends whose first meeting turns deadly in “Utopia.”
Jessica Rothe (from left), Ashleigh LaThrop, Dan Byrd and Desmin Borges play chatroom friends whose first meeting turns deadly in “Utopia.”
Amazon Studios

“Why do we keep feeling like it’s the end of the world?”

“Because someone is trying to end the world!” — Exchange in “Utopia.”

The great thing about “Utopia” is how it allows us to escape into a pure fantasy comic-book world — a crazy world in which a pandemic is spreading across the country, there are calls for schools to be shut down, quarantines have been enacted, conspiracy theories abound, scientists are struggling to have their voices heard, there’s conflicting information about a game-changing vaccine, and the entire world seems to be on the brink of chaos.

Oh, wait. Turns out you might be able to find a link or two between this Amazon Prime series (premiering Sept. 25) and the madness lurking just outside our door when we wake up every morning.

Though it’s a remake of a British series from 2013, and filming in the Chicago area was completed before the outbreak of COVID-19, “Utopia” has numerous and obvious parallels to current real-world events — but this violent, darkly comic, bizarre and consistently involving eight-part series (I’ve seen the first seven episodes) has its own wild creativity and exists in a universe even crazier than our own.

In nearly every episode, something shocking happens. You cannot take a bathroom break or get distracted by your phone for even 90 seconds, or you’ll risk missing something HUGE.

Just as Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects”) did with the British series “Widows,” moving the action to Chicago for one of the best films of the last decade, she transports “Utopia” from Great Britain to Chicago, keeping many of the main storylines intact while adding some twists as well as a couple of new, impactful characters.

The series kicks off with a group of chatroom geek friends who have never met in person gathering at a Comic-Con-type convention in Chicago in pursuit of the lone copy of the graphic novel “Utopia,” the rumored sequel to “Dystopia,” which fringe groups believe actually predicted real-world epidemics such as Ebola and SARS.

Our unlikely heroes: nerdy insurance salesman Ian (Dan Byrd), activist-minded Sam (Jessica Rothe), the good-natured but secret-harboring Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), the disaster prepper, bunker-dwelling Wilson (Desmin Borges) and Grant (Javon Walton), who has passed himself off as a wealthy playboy in their chat rooms but is, in fact, a 10-year-old boy.

They’re united in the belief that “Dystopia” exists beyond the pages of a comic book, that the book’s antihero Jessica Hyde is real, that the villainous Mr. Rabbit is real — that it’s all real, and the pages of “Utopia” could hold the secret to saving the world from impending doom.

Spoiler alert: They might not be wrong.

The company run by Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack) might be making people sick with its synthetic meat.
The company run by Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack) might be making people sick with its synthetic meat.
Amazon Studios

It would be a massive understatement to say things go sideways at the convention. We’re introduced to one of the most unlikely and yet chilling assassins in recent memory: the track-suit wearing, slightly pudgy, raisin-snacking, inhaler-using Arby (Christopher Denham), who looks like the kind of guy who would hold his hands over his ears at a fireworks show but then would gun down perceived opponents and innocent bystanders of all ages as casually as if they were characters in a video game. (You’ll be hard-pressed not to turn away when Arby maims a victim with an ordinary spoon.)

Soon, our Geek Squad is on the run, eventually joined by none other than Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) herself, who has been living underground for nine years, trying to save her father, a brilliant scientist supposedly forced to create deadly viruses lest Jessica be killed.

Yep — it’s complicated.

Underground warrior Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) goes on the run with her fans.
Underground warrior Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) goes on the run with her fans.
Amazon Studios

John Cusack brings a subtle menace to the outwardly charming and upbeat Dr. Kevin Christie, the CEO of a biotech giant that has created a synthetic meat that could be making people sick. (Every night at the dinner table, Dr. Christie asks each person, “What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?”)

Christie enlists the help of the virologist Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson, outstanding), who made a breakthrough discovery a half dozen years ago but has been relegated to the fringes — until he’s called up for his big moment.

Be careful what you wish for, Michael.

Rainn Wilson is a standout as virologist Michael Stearns.
Rainn Wilson is a standout as virologist Michael Stearns.
Amazon Studios

“Utopia” has some nifty Chicago touches — such as the gargoyles atop the Harold Washington Library unlocking a key clue in Episode 3. And it’s a well-photographed show, with suburban homes sometimes lit like houses of horror and the night exteriors in and around the city bathed in shadowy tones hinting of danger around every corner.

Yet some of the most brutal shocks come in the light of day, against a backdrop of greens and yellows and a bright blue sky.

There’s even a disturbingly effective animated sequence, “Alice in Wonderland” style — after all, we ARE down the Mr. Rabbit-hole — unlocking mysteries about Jessica Hyde’s childhood. (We’re also reminded of the “Wizard of Oz” more than once, as characters speak of escaping this dream/nightmare world by returning “home.”)

And we get a nice sprinkling of tension-breaking humor, as when the intense Wilson says, “Volunteer celibacy sharpens the mind, Becky.”

Some of the twists and turns are so outlandish as to defy reality — but “Utopia” exists in an alternate reality where bizarre IS the norm.

When Michael reacts to one late development by saying, “What … the … f---!” he’s echoing what we’ve been thinking since the beginning.