UTOPIA: Is This Channel 4's Ultra-violent Masterpiece?

Many are complaining about the cold violence of Channel 4's new series Utopia, but this could just be the life saving drama that gives Channel 4 its edge back...
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Many are complaining about the cold violence of Channel 4's new series Utopia, but this could just be the life saving drama that gives Channel 4 its edge back...

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With teaser trailers that revealed little and a storyline that was always going to seem cliquey, Channel 4’s new drama series, Utopia, was an inevitably going to be an intriguing watch, and just two episodes in, it already seems clear that this is going to be Marmite television.

The first thing that stands out in a series that has many attractions, is the stylisation. Writer and Director Dennis Kelly has done wonderful things with both pen and camera here, revelling in a slow pace that captures every moment, every exchange between characters, and every moment of stark violence.

Especially attractive for a storyline taking its initial premise from the hidden undercurrent of a graphic novel, is the number of comic-book references contained within the imagery. The first scene of episode one has two references alone to Watchmen, and of course the storyline of grand conspiracies wrapped within more conspiracies seems straight out of Grant Morrison’s ‘The Invisibles’. The slow pacing of the camera work, combined with the low key performances of the excellent cast, help to provide the series with such an oppressing sense of menace that the ad breaks are an almost welcome intrusion; a chance to catch your breath and sit back from the edge of your seat. Even the camera framing resembles a comic page layout, with still camerawork and beautifully rendered colouring almost a shocking switch from scene to scene.

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But the most divisive aspect of the series so far is the violence. Episode one starts with four shocking murders, of which three are shown on-screen. The fourth murder is that of a child. This death is brutal in that it isn’t shown, and therefore probably worse, but it also means that the gloves are off, and that no one is safe. There are no taboos for the representatives of the shadowy Network that are the driving force behind the conspiracy. It also means that the two child characters that are certain to play a larger part in the story are not out of bounds for a hideous death. That in itself makes for powerful and shocking television.

Despite the slow pace of the action, the storyline itself is rocketing along without pause. The sheer horror of the unrelenting question: “Where is Jessica Hyde?” in the first episode would have been enough for many other series to drag out for as long as possible, but with Utopia, that question is revealed and addressed in Episode Two. It’s not a nice answer, but with echoes of The Matrix, Alice in Wonderland and anything by David Lynch, it’s clear that nothing about this series is going to be comfortable.

Neither is it going to be obvious. Certainly you can see some things coming, but there is enough strangeness going on that this is going to keep viewers on their toes in a way that something like Lost really wanted, but ultimately failed to do. The character of Arby, played so deliciously horrific and single-mindedly by Neil Maskell, is bound to reveal something bizarre in future episodes. Just look at the way he walks, uncomfortable, stilting, lurching, occasionally resembling a robot or alien in the wrong skin.

What’s also clear is that some kind of world-changing, organised apocalypse is on the way. The references to over-population and the prevalence of the Russian Flu storyline all hint at that. Will our rag-tag band of mismatched ‘heroes’ be able to prevent that, or will they become part of it?

All of the characters are developing nicely. In a series where the bad guys as well as the heroine are vying for who can be the best psychopath, Nathan Stewart-Jarret’s Ian is an everyman counter-point who is being forced to confront what he’s capable of. Again though, there is more than a little mystery surrounding his supposedly ‘normal’ life. Why isn’t he as concerned for his parents as Wilson is about his dad?

One of the best moments of the two episodes was the point where Grant revealed his real self, the others chuckling at their naivety in believing that he was a city banker who drove a Porsche. Barely moments after this, Becky revealed to the audience that she too has been misleading us as to her ultimate allegiance and alternate agenda. In this world of shadow games and false identities, Wilson Wilson (played perfectly by Adeel Akhtar) seems the sanest; the true conspiracy-theory paranoid who always knew the world was out to get him, proven correct in a way that made for distinctly uncomfortable viewing. Uncomfortable yes. Over the top? Not even a little bit.
The potential for this series is good. The hope is that it will keep standards up and won’t relent. If it manages to maintain its stylish cinematography, sharp dialogue, eccentricity and overwhelming sense of menace, we could be looking at the first great series of 2013.