Directed by: Alex Garcia Lopez, Marc Munden
Written by: Dennis Kelly
Starring: Adeel Akhtar, Alexandra Roach, Fiona O'Shaughnessy, Geraldine James, James Fox, Michael Smiley, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Neil Maskell, Oliver Woollford, Stephen Rea
Originally aired on Channel 4 in January 2013
If the series makers wanted you to sit up straight and watch their programme, they definitely catch your attention with their brutal opening set in a comic book store. As two guys, armed with a bar and a gas canister threaten the staff, they question the comic book worker about a particular graphic novel called Utopia Experiments…
“Who is Jessica Hyde?” will become ingrained upon your memory as out-of-breath hitman Arby questions seemingly innocent people before his accomplice tortures them. HorrorCultFilms readers will recognise Arby as Neil Maskell from Ben Wheatley’s KILL LIST, one of our favourite horrors of 2011. He is joined in Utopia by a familiar face in the shape of Kill List buddy, Michael Smiley . Don’t be fooled though, he and Michael aren’t working together in this movie and it isn’t long before Smiley’s role takes a turn for the worst.
Utopia uses quite a few familiar faces and big names, including Misfits Curtis, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, respected actor James Fox (lead actor in Nic Roeg’s Performance with Mick Jagger), Adeel Akhtar (Four Lions), Stephen Rea (The Company of Wolves, V For Vendetta) and Geraldine James, who was last seen in Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake. Each gives a fantastic performance, particularly Paul Higgins who plays minister of health Michael Dugdale who becomes embroiled in the whole conspiracy, as well as young Oliver Woollford, who plays foul mouthed yet lovable rogue, Grant.
In the first few episodes, UTOPIA comes across as quite pretentious, with the storyline hidden amonsgt the artsy scenes and dialogue that consumes it. This was rather offputting for me, as it broke the momentum of the series and my ability to decipher the story through the mass of filler. However, in the later episodes, it certainly does pick up, becomes much more story orientated and engages the viewer as the full conspiracy of the Utopia experiments cult novel finally becomes clear. Believe me, this is one series you have to concentrate on, with the depth of questions explored that will leave you thinking long after you’ve switched off the television set.
UTOPIA is very politically heavy, and some of it even suggests that you can’t believe everything you read in the papers or see on television, as lies the Government wish you to see can be thrust upon you, via TV, internet and even your water or food supply. Utopia even questions the supposed outbreaks of diseases such as SARS and one particular scene could have you questioning other major country and world shattering events that have since passed that could have been politically motivated and sanctioned. Put it this way, if you love a good conspiracy, you will love Utopia, a series that plants the seed in the viewers brain to question everything.
During the series, a moral and ethical dilemma is introduced, and it’s interesting to note that the only member of the group that actually agrees with the viewpoint of the lethal ‘network’ is suddenly portrayed as a bad guy. If you sit back and think about what this series is suggesting, there are arguments both for and against, with a solution definitely needed somewhere in the middle. You will no doubt, as I did, question yourself on what you think the characters should do and whether any of them or neither of them are right…
As I mentioned, the depth that writer Dennis Kelly has gone to in Utopia is extraordinary for a series. You wouldn’t normally get to see this on television, but Channel 4, who also brought us similar themed thriller mini-series, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, is always the one to lead the way. There is so much content and so many theories which are included in Utopia, that it’s intriguing how the writer managed to think of and piece them altogether, into one, eventual cohesive storyline. It’s interesting to note that some of the names used in this series may have been inspired by Robert Ludlam’s successful political, sci-fi thriller novels, Covert-One series. Ludlam’s fictional top-secret agency Covert-One could have been the inspiration for pharmeceutical company Covardt, though Covert-One fight against bioweapons and conspiracies. Janus and The Utopia Experiments actually exist as Ludlam’s book titles, The Janus Reprisal and The Utopia Experiments respectively. The Utopia Experiments could have also been inspired by British academic Dylan Evan’s research and field test in which a group of volunteers set up a small community in the Scottish Highlands, imagining what would life be like in 2025 should the entire economy, food supplies, electricity and gas collapse.
Utopia is a well made series, uniquely shot with bright, vivid colours that will light up your screen. This is ironic as the content involves murder, blackmail, conspiracy, foul-language and the odd bit of sex: a series which, in parts, is quite bleak. The filmmakers used some remarkable locations, around Liverpool and Southport, for stately homes and private schools, not to mention the roadside cafe. To my surprise, they even used the Mercury Hotel near the Chequerbent Roundabout on the A6 in Westhoughton for a bar scene, a place which I pass frequently. Despite the North-West locations, the story is set in London though the storyline affects the entire UK, even the world.
If you’re looking for a thought-provoking series that will get those grey cells working, you’d be a fool to miss this modern day political thriller that will appeal to teenagers as well as the older audience with its comic book style.
Check out this clip starring Wilson Wilson from the Utopia series below