Graphic novel The Utopia Experiments is an esoteric tale. The picture it paints of a world where manmade diseases deliberately ravage populations is a little too blinkered and bleak for mainstream fanboy taste. The website dedicated to its mythology has a membership comprised of conspiracy theorists, skeptics and trolls. When five of the members agree to meet they expect a weird and wonderful evening. With the exception of shy newcomer Ian, they have all been chatting for some time and Bejan’s offer to share an original manuscript of the fabled sequel proves impossible to refuse.
Feisty Welsh bird Becky has other reasons for attending the meet-up. Her personal connection to the story gives her every reason to believe it may be true. Paranoiac Wilson Wilson is so intrigued to see the next installment that he leaves his government-proof lair especially. And IT consultant Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) just fancied a day off work (though now he rather fancies Becky too). Site regular Grant’s approach is different, he uses the gathering as cover to break into Bejan’s apartment and snoop around. While the others sit in the pub speculating about the lifestyle of Grant, the self-assured city trader they’ve exchanged banter with online, the eleven-year-old liar and petty criminal witnesses the murder of the man they are waiting to see. He sprints from the scene with a single souvenir – the Utopia manuscript.
Arby and Lee are assassins and dementedly dedicated to their work. Lee (Paul Ready) is a charmer in a slick suit with a salesman’s grin and a penchant for creative torture. Arby (Neil Maskell) is a psychotic killing machine with a hangman’s countenance and a compulsive chocolate raisin habit. The pair visit to retrieve the book and ask Bejan one very important question: “Where is Jessica Hyde?”
Utopia begins with a deadly tableau in a comic book store. Each camera glance to Lee’s jaunty bag of accessories precedes another clanging WTF moment until one is forced to abandon all TV-thriller preconceptions and simply enjoy the ride. A sense of heightened reality pervades and swiftly dispatches any expectation of a comfortable viewing experience or of mercy for the unlucky souls who encounter The Network and its agents. Every subsequent scene or crumb of knowledge juxtaposes another layer of anxiety and this Jenga tower of worry only ceases its wobble when the credits close.
Jessica Hyde has been on the run since she was a small child. But the existence of a second book has coaxed her from the shadows. She knows the consequences awaiting the surviving group members, the book carries with it a death sentence and Arby and Lee are tireless hunters. Wilson Wilson doesn’t trust the internet. Or the police. Or any official organization or ruling body. He has assembled a nuclear fall-out shelter to protect him from radiation, trained himself to break free of handcuffs and erased his online presence to protect him from prying eyes. Apart from the whole using his real name on the website thing…
Jessica is hardly embraced by the group. They have been rather too preoccupied putting Wilson’s face back together to ponder the identity of the woman who cost him an eye. When this sociopathic incarnation of Lara Croft insists they run for their lives they become positively mutinous. Grant is already wearying of running, any hope for sanctuary fleeing with Arby’s impromptu visit to his school. He did make a friend along the way – Alice – unfortunately their encounter will cost the little girl dearly. Oblivious to the mayhem in his wake he joins the group, where a new question is perplexing them all: who can we really trust?
Dennis Kelly and his co-writers (Mark Aldridge, Huw Kennair-Jones and Clare McDonald) have done something special with Utopia – it is a truly original thriller. Although there are shades of No Country for Old Men in the chase, of Black Mirror in the mood and of The Usual Suspects in the conclusion, Utopia is a thing of beauty because it has a distinct voice of its own. There are stand-out performances from Oliver Woollford as streetwise/sh*t scared urchin Grant and Adeel Akhtar as conflicted Wilson while Neil Maskell’s shark-eyed Arby could easily snatch the maniac crown from Bond baddie Silva. Paul Higgens (In the Loop’s other sweary Scot) is also great value as compromised health official Michael.
With their families’ lives at risk, their reputations tarnished by contrived arrests, and the chilling illusion of a high school killing spree, the fugitives finally appreciate The Network’s reach. Mrs. Milner (Geraldine James) at MI5 might be an ally if only she were willing to break cover. In the end the only possible exit strategy is to unmask the elusive Mr. Rabbit.
Though not a fan of conspiracy-driven drama, I found Utopia an exhilarating watch. The chillingly pragmatic motives of The Network were an especially nice touch. I am loath to give away too much plot detail here because there is so much pleasure in discovering as you watch. If there are negatives they lie in issues of pacing when the group are latterly locked away. I also struggled with Fiona O’Shaughnessy’s Jessica whose fury and intensity occasionally veered towards bad mime. That being said, her final exchange with Arby, her intensity matched by his, was a series high point.
Utopia is an ultra-violent thrill ride to be gobbled in great greedy chunks. It is stylish and spare, telling an unbelievable tale without too many techie bells and whistles. Unflinching in its depiction of murder, across the generations, that frank eye will undoubtedly put off meeker viewers. But brave souls who persevere will be rewarded. I cannot recommend Utopia highly enough and I long to see what dark delights a second season might bring.
Utopia is available to buy on DVD & Blu-ray from 11th March 2013
Extras include deleted scenes and a World of Utopia featurette with creator Dennis Kelly.