When the original UK version of Utopia aired on Channel 4 in 2013, the story of a mysterious graphic novel with the ability to predict pandemics felt like outlandish sci-fi territory. Even when production on Amazon Prime Video’s new US remake wrapped in late 2019, nobody could have known that the emergence of a certain virus was about to make the show feel spookily relevant.
“The echoes and parallels to the show are just absolutely insane,” says Rainn Wilson, The Office star who plays virologist Dr Michael Stearns.
“Pandemic, obscure virus, vaccines, conspiracies behind the scenes, who to believe, who to trust… I remember texting [showrunner] Gillian Flynn saying, ‘OMG! What is happening? It’s unfolding like the show.’ [The show’s] a lot more – dare I say – lighthearted and entertaining than the current pandemic is, but hopefully it'll also have some impact because it’s happening in the real world.”
“Obviously it’s been recontextualised quite a bit, just in the past six months or so,” adds Flynn, the Gone Girl author who’s shepherded the new-look Utopia to the screen.
“It certainly took [Utopia] tonally from what was, to me, on the edge of science fiction – a pandemic was a plotline to pull us through a larger story – and suddenly it became a reality in the real world. I think certain moments just land harder and differently than one would have expected them to. And certain things that were played to be a little bit surreal, unfortunately, now don't feel surreal anymore.”
Like the Dennis Kelly-scripted original, Utopia 2.0 centres on a disparate mix of geeky idealists, conspiracy theorists and sceptics brought together by the eponymous graphic novel. When a manuscript of Utopia – whose existence is supposed to be closely guarded secret – goes up for auction, it sparks a frenzy of activity. It also attracts a pair of assassins on a mission to wipe out anyone who’s laid eyes on the prophetic comic book.
It’s a premise that hooked Flynn instantly. She’s been working on a US version of Utopia for years – a collaboration with The Social Network/Gone Girl director David Fincher nearly got off the ground at HBO in 2014 – and the idea never went away.
“I just think Dennis is a world class world builder,” Flynn explains.
“I love the idea that this is a world of conspiracy, and you don't know who you can trust. I mean, that's what I've written my whole career! And I just love the idea that everyone’s got a secret, everyone's got a spin.
"My background is media, I was a journalist for 10 years, and I like that idea of being able to play with… We're hitting the age now where it’s like whoever has the best ability to manipulate and spin the truth is the entity that's going to win.”
Shifting the action from Britain to Chicago isn’t the only change Flynn has made to the source material. While many of the central gang have the same names, their personalities have been subtly tweaked. She’s also introduced several new characters, from Wilson’s Michael Stearns – a scientist whose career is on a downward curve when he uncovers the conspiracy – to John Cusack as Dr Kevin Christie, a biotech billionaire who’s putting on a very public show of making the world a better place. Flynn also admits that she only “ended up using two pieces of dialogue” from Kelly’s scripts.
“Dennis was much more gracious about me messing around in his world than I would have been had anyone started playing in any of mine!” laughs Flynn.
“He would say at every turn, ‘Why remake something if you're not going to remake it?’ which gave me so much breathing room and freedom that I really appreciated.”
It may be hard to believe in a time when Covid-19 and its implications dominate approximately 91.7 per cent of conversations on the planet (estimated), but Utopia isn’t primarily a show about pandemics.
“I really [didn’t do it] as any sort of medical procedural, or [to say] this is what a pandemic would look like,” Flynn admits.
“Much more of the intention was about where we‘re at now. We’re at a place where there’s no truth, there is no right-side up, wrong-side down. We’re ripe for misinformation and spin and conspiracy.
"I really was taking my cues from those [’70s] conspiracy thrillers, like All the President’s Men and The Parallax View, where they almost feel like newsreels sometimes. I wanted it to be rich, really textured, one of those places where you walk into certain spaces, and you feel like you can smell it a little bit. I think as I was pitching I called it Marathon Man meets The Goonies!”
“We are a glorious band of misfits,” agrees Jessica Rothe, the Happy Death Day star who plays Samantha, a character created specifically for the remake.
“Each of the nerds has their own special skill and their own reason for being there, whether completely selfless or not – I think everybody, in a delicious way, comes in with their own secret. There’s so much heart and so much humour. It was such a joy to play with everyone and to go on this rollercoaster of an adventure, and to find the moments that were heart-breaking and terrifying, but also the moments that were really light and really exciting.
"I think one of the beautiful things about being labelled as a nerd is that you get to feel emotions without apology, like there is no filter on these characters. So I think in that way, we are totally The Goonies. We are that group of kids that gets in a little over their heads but really becomes a group of unlikely heroes.”
Although Samantha, Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd) and the brilliantly named Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges) have never met in person before, the camaraderie is there because they’ve spent ages communicating online. Not everyone in the show plays quite so well with others, however. It turns out that Jessica Hyde, a key character in the Utopia graphic novel, is actually a real person trying to solve the mysteries of her past – and actor Sasha Lane has previously described her as a “feral cat”.
“The definition of a feral cat is a cat that doesn't like human interaction,” explains Lane.
“It doesn't really hang around other cats, is on edge constantly, will do whatever it takes to get its food, and then will run off. It’s not necessarily the sweetest little thing. It’s not domesticated, basically. Jessica Hyde grew up in survival mode, she grew up constantly running, she grew up with one mission, and did whatever it took to, you know, get some food or whatever.
"But mainly her mission is to find her dad, so she doesn't really know how to interact with other people, she doesn't really know how to be social. She doesn’t handle emotions and doesn’t hang around anywhere. She doesn’t want to be found.”
Utopia’s mix of conspiracies, topicality and A-list writing talent was enough to tempt Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity star John Cusack to make his first foray from movies to TV. Kevin Christie is an intriguing, morally complex role, but when the actor is asked whether any real-life billionaires inspired the character in the show – the billionaire is selling a revolutionary new artificial food source – he’s reluctant to name names:
“I think it's safe to say that there’s enough of an amalgamation of very PR savvy, benevolent billionaires that tell you that you should trust them, that they that they'll be the ones that'll save us. It’s obviously a complicated moral universe, that that kind of top down philanthropic approach... One of the things about the show is you don’t really want to give away what happens. As soon as you feel like you have an assumption of who a character is, usually there are trap doors, and then you end up in a different space.
“With Gillian's work the architecture of the piece is so intricate,” Cusack adds, “and the stakes get heightened and heightened.
"Then you reveal that what you thought about the character wasn't really accurate, and there’s a whole other level to who the characters are. That happens across the board. So I think that it’s a certain kind of aptitude that Gillian has, that I think great writers have, where things are always surprising. Then, in retrospect, they seem inevitable.”
Utopia season 1 is available on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 25 September.
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