Utopia: Conspiracy thriller packs a punch

utopiaAs I’d heard good things about Channel 4’s new mini-series, I settled down to watch with trepidation and was rather impressed. The plot focuses around an online forum group for fans of a cult graphic novel The Utopia Experiments: a novel that allegedly predicts future events.

They are brought together after one of them discovers a sequel to the novel. Something thought to not exist. Unfortunately this brings them to the attention of two evil chaps hell-bent on retrieving the sequel’s manuscript and killing the group and anyone associated with it, often in a chilling fashion.

utopia2Where is Jessica Hyde?

This mini-series is pitched as a slow-burn thriller and I’d say that’s an apt description. It gradually weaves various story strands together and we get introduced to characters slowly and confidently, learning a little about them in each scene.

As well as the forum group, there’s also a sub-plot involving a government health minister, which looks likely to connect with the main story further down the line and has intrigue written all over it.

Why a spoon? Because it’s dull, it’ll hurt more

In terms of critical reception, much will be made of the violence. Considering this is TV, it’s incredibly well-shot and cinematic, with a compelling cast including Kill List alumni Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley. If you’ve seen that film you’ll have an idea of the tone.

Without giving too much away I’ll just say there’s a few stand-out, Tarantino-esque scenes that really do pack a punch. That said, it’s not violence all the way – indeed, the characters are built up well and the plot is intriguing and compelling.

wilson wilsonMaster of suspense

One of the things the show does well is not reveal its hand too quickly. Vitally important – for something pitching itself as a slow-burn thriller – to keep in mind. Obvious you may say, but it’s been ignored before.

As an audience, we like to be kept guessing. Not too much, but enough to keep us hooked. Based on the first episode I think they’ve got the balance right. Let’s hope, if it’s maintained for the duration, the results could be something quite special.

[Interesting links]
Guardian blog: Utopia review | How long before they find you? The Utopia Inquiry

Secret State – proper thriller or nothing new?

Talk about a mixed reaction to the first episode of Channel 4’s four-part political conspiracy thriller Secret State. Some critics think it’s pretty good, others have torn it apart.

Me? I sit somewhere in the middle, probably more on the positive side. Despite the plot being a little predictable at times, it’s well shot and Gabriel Byrne (Deputy Prime Minister) is a compelling lead, with a solid supporting cast including: Charles Dance (Chief Whip with dark motives?), Gina McKee (suspiciously well informed reporter), Douglas Hodge (alcoholic ex-MI5 chief turned private investigator).

Setting the scene
Based on the book A Very British Coup, the story begins in the aftermath of an explosion at a US petrochemical site in Teeside, which results in the death of 19 people. After securing compensation for the families whose loved ones died in the explosion, the Prime Minister’s plane suspiciously crashes on a flight back from the US and he dies.

Dawkins (Byrne) reluctantly assumes leadership and promises justice for the victims’ families. As he pressures the petrochemical company to make good on their compensation promise, he begins to make discoveries of a conspiratorial nature that lie at the heart of Government.

channel 4 thrillerSuspicion abound!
Within the first 20 minutes or so, it becomes abundantly clear that nearly every major character has hidden/murky motives. We’d expect nothing less from a conspiracy thriller right?

It does feel that plot points are contrived at times. Characters like McKee’s reporter pop up at key moments with teasing information to divulge.

Everyone appears to be watching everyone – GCHQ are listening intently to the PM, the order coming from someone ‘very senior’. My money is on Chief Whip (Dance) who’s clearly up to something – he always is. His gravestone should read, ‘Born to scheme’. Ahem, let’s move on.

I understand why people expect thrillers to deliver on every level these days, they’re up against wise, old dogs – State of Play, Edge of Darkness – and keen, new youngsters – Homeland.

A proper PM
Ladies love a bit of Byrne right? He’s great casting. Calm, decisive, authoritative, charismatic, knowledgeable – everything you’d expect from a leader. You get the sense he’s on the back-foot initially, but his Irish fire will kick in and he’ll tear into those that oppose him. At least, that’s my hope.

Numerous references get made to his military background. It would be great to see him bring righteousness to the political arena. A biblical PM, delivering great vengeance and furious anger against his conspirators, Pulp Fiction style. Too much?

The long game
In terms of the London setting and production values, it’s visually impressive. Great shots of Whitehall and the corridors of power. The score is suitably tense, although perhaps stolen from the Bourne films?

I imagine many characters will reveal their true motives as things progress. Despite some shortfalls in terms of giving the audience too many ‘standard conspiracy’ elements, it’s worth sticking with this show. It’s only a four-parter, so probably best judging at the end.

I’ve seen two episodes and it’s shaping up well. Not an instant classic, but worth your time. If nothing else than to imagine what it’d be like if Byrne was PM. Now that would be thrilling.