Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Utopia: Brutal, Bloodstained Beauty and Colour Theory

Note: I apologise in advance for the picture-heaviness of this article. You'll understand why, I promise.

Note Note: Some of you may have heard and yes, it's true. Utopia will not be renewed for a 3rd series, despite it being fucking awesome... So much cry... It's still worth watching though, so get on it!
Utopia channel 4 tv show season 1 poster
"They call me mellow yellow..."

The words 'great', 'unmissable' and 'ground-breaking' are tossed around a lot when talking about TV nowadays. It seems like in the past 5 years we've been drowned in award-winning quality programming being thrown at us from all directions, each deemed great and ground-breaking and unmissable. Utopia, which has just recently finished it's second series, has received similar praise from many, although has yet to travel far from our warm British shores to join its American brethren. Is it because the US doesn't like us? Or is it because, as with some of these other shows, it receives a tad more praise than it deserves? Ooo, lookie, I'm not telling you what I think straight away; you're going to have to read on! *twiddles moustache*

Plot-wise, you're looking at pretty standard political conspiracy/thriller fare. Utopia centres on a mysterious graphic novel called The Utopia Project and a small band of message board members who go on the hunt for a secret manuscript of the supposed "second" issue of the book. The only problem is that there's a shady organisation called The Network on the hunt for the manuscript themselves under the orders of the mysterious Mr. Rabbit, leaving a sea of blood in their wake. Like, a literal fucking pool of blood big enough to separate land masses.

Utopia channel 4 tv show season 1 comic store shop child
There is an unhealthily high proportion of infanticide in this show...
Utopia is, to quote some famous witches, bloody, bold, and resolute; if you're looking for your fix of brutal violence, you'll find it here, and in abundance. The winding plot gives ample opportunity for nasty interrogations, sudden executions and general bang bang ouchie times, some of which you will not expect. People will die, and they won't necessarily be minor characters; think Game of Thrones if it took loooots of MDMA and had a penchant for torturing people in fun and interesting way. Essentially Ramsay Snow.

Sure, the visual effects are sometimes less than convincing, but on a whole the show strikes a very effective balance with long periods of tension and exposition interspersed with short, sharp shocks of visceral gore, usually in the form of that lovely pattern brain splatter makes on fancy modern open plan buildings and such. The unique use of hypersaturation, meticulous framing and stark colour contrasts is not only refreshing in comparison to the current trend in most media of "make everything browner, damnit!", but also gives everything a weirdly surreal and almost Kubrickian creepy tone which, when coupled with all of the glorious violence, can be pretty unpleasant.

Utopia channel 4 tv show milner shoot guard
Get used to this sort of thing.
The creep and tension is complimented wonderfully by what can be only described as an avant-garde minimalist techno soundtrack by Cristobal Tapia de Veer, which is exactly as beautifully wanky as you would expect. Think lots of slow progression, weird voice manipulation, electronic noise and deep, foreboding...stuff. I'm not good with music. It's as weird, compelling and downright terrifying as the show it belongs to, though. Fuck it, listen for yourself:

Christ, turns out there's a lot about this show to talk about. OK, quickfire round. The aforementioned cinematography is superb; just spectacular. Every shot has been lovingly framed and crafted to make a perfect image, which has made picking screenshots for this post a nightmare; I've ended up with over two dozen to pick from. Every single shot is an immediate screen-grab, it's unbelievable. It's more photogenic than Emma Stone in an adorable shark costume.

Utopia channel 4 tv show purple field pyramid
Utopia channel 4 tv show grant interrogation room
Utopia channel 4 tv show jessica abandoned mansion green
Take them! Take all the screenshots!
The acting and writing aren't quite as faultless as the camerawork, but despite a bit of cheesiness and some hammy delivery, they still manage to hold their own. This is helped to no end by some refreshingly fascinating characters. The main gang on the hunt for the manuscript consists of Bekki, a Welsh girl dealing with her father's death from the fictional Deel's Syndrome (think MacGregor's Syndrome, but not fucking retarded), Ian, a bored IT consultant, the enigmatic badass Jessica Hyde, Grant, an 11 year old boy from a broken home and Wilson, the most awesome conspiracy theorist on the planet.

One of the sub-plots revolves around Michael Dugdale, the spineless, bumbling secretary to the Health Minister, and his encounters with the ever-so-shady Corvadt Industries, who blackmail him into pushing through a number of dubious pharmaceutical deals with the government. Meanwhile, we're occasionally treated to seeing whatever gratuitous violence Arby, the terrifying hitman for The Network, is up to at the present moment. All of the stories intertwine, subtly at first, before crashing together in an explosion of plot twists and spectacular reveals and dramatic music; it's all very intense and very, very well written.

Utopia channel 4 tv show arby cafe breakfast
Did I mention how creepy this guy is?
The plot itself is, however, far overshadowed by simply how well each of the actors have managed to slot into their roles, the subtle interplay between each of the cast as they adapt to their lives being irrevocably changed for the worst equally as fascinating as the rest of the story. Character development is gradual but never glacial, unlike certain other popular shows I could mention *coughbreakingbadcough*, so it always feels like the characters are changing and keeping the playing field moving. Everyone has multiple allegiances as well as their own backs to cover, so there's an ever-present sense of distrust even within the core group.

Utopia channel 4 tv show wilson two eyes bedroom orange
Best keep an eye on him. *giggle*
It's a solid, enjoyable show, then. But what makes Utopia go from good to great for me is something else that you might have noticed from all of the pictures; Utopia has a very distinctive, unique style that makes full use of colour, pretty much a colour theorist's wet dream. As with any good show it can be taken at face value as a stylistic choice, but if you're willing to look further its meaning and resulting impact on the core themes of the show runs much deeper.

Yellow is undoubtedly the most obvious use of this to us common folk, and is picked up pretty quickly as an established motif related to Arby's brutal executions and the presence of danger. Even if you don't realise why, the more yellow you see on screen, the tenser the moment and the more fucked you imagine a character is about to get.

Utopia channel 4 tv show michael vaccine boxes yellow warehouse
"Shiiiiiiit." - Me watching this scene.
It doesn't stop there though. From only one run through of the show, I've picked up on interesting uses of blues, reds and greens, although I've had difficulty pinpointing exactly what some of them are trying to say, as they often swap meanings or are used in conjunction with each other. It's safe to say though that there is a pattern and some very clever set and costume designers have put huge amounts of effort to display complex themes through a rather limited, if striking, colour palate. For example, it appears that blue is used to symbolise the forces of good fighting against the evil yellow, most evident in the fact that the main group agrees to wear blue for their first meeting. More blue means more good.

Hell, they even dye Grant's hair blue.
When Michael starts to have a battle with his morals, look what shows up in the background, a yellow and blue painting! I'm starting to think this isn't all as subtle as I first thought.

Utopia channel 4 tv show michael blue yellow painting
Other colours are a bit more wishy washy in what they mean, but I think I've got some of it down. As far as I can tell, red seems to be a little like the trail of breadcrumbs leading us through the mystery. The first correspondence between the message board members is seen through a glass of red wine:

Utopia channel 4 tv show bejan wine glass message board

Jessica is led through an abandoned warehouse to the supposed location of the manuscript by a red stripe on the wall:

Utopia channel 4 tv show jessica arby manuscript hidden abandoned building red

And at another point, Grant inadvertently wears a jacket with a hidden tracker in it, which leads others to him. Shock, horror, the jacket is red.

Utopia channel 4 tv show grant red jacket tracker gun
What a perfect derp face.
The rest is as much your guess as mine, but if you're at all like me, that'll be half the fun. There's nothing better than spotting a pattern and being given the chance to work out what it means all by yourself, like solving your own little mystery whilst watching a bigger one unfold. Alongside all this clever use of colour are countless references to rabbits and probably more hidden goodies than an Easter egg hunt in the Fritzel household, so even the keenest of fans will be pushed to the limit. All in all, if you're looking for a challenging viewing experience that'll expect a little more from you than other shows, you'll probably want to shove this one on Netflix.

I'm so sorry at how long this post has got, but it turns out Utopia is absolutely brimming with fascinating characters, corkscrewing plot twists, beautiful design and deep themes and I'm having serious trouble stopping talking about it. So to go back to the beginning and wrap things up, do I think it is groundbreaking? No, the core idea is surprisingly standard, but the presentation is a breath of fresh air. Do I think it's great and unmissable? By god yes.

I think I'm in love.

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