Lee (Paul Ready) plays a torturer, shown here with favourite tool. Image: Channel 4.
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There are no clear answers in Channel 4’s conspiracy thriller Utopia

Channel 4’s Utopia is a complex and unpredictable thriller which refuses to give easy answers on the challenges of population growth.

Utopia is a Channel 4 conspiracy thriller with a complex and unpredictable storyline. The controversial show, which first aired in January 2013 and ends its second series this week, addresses Thomas Robert Malthus’s thesis that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”, or put in plainer terms, that the population is accelerating too quickly for the earth to cope. It suggests what might happen if the population were to spiral out of control and an elite network set out to prevent Malthus’s prediction from becoming reality.

Utopia focuses on a group of people who know one another through an online forum. What unites them is a shared passion for a graphic novel known as “The Utopia Experiments”. Bejan, a contributor to the forum, claims to have acquired the novel’s undiscovered sequel: “Utopia Part Two”. Grant, an 11-year-old boy who also uses the forum, breaks into his house to steal it. As he does he witnesses Bejan’s murder. His killers demand to know the novel’s whereabouts. The members of the forum find themselves running from “The Network” – an unfathomably powerful organisation led by the infamous “Mr Rabbit”, an individual prepared to go to any lengths to secure the graphic novel, believed to contain the genetic code for “Janus”, a protein designed to sterilise “90-95 per cent” of the human race and create a utopian future world for those that remain.

Throughout the first two series, director Marc Mudden has worked hard at depicting “bad guys” who are nuanced and complex. Although they commit terrible acts, certain aspects of their philosophy appear frighteningly logical. The human race is dependent on oil, gas and coal. Reserves are limited. What will happen without an efficient alternative for energy? By putting a limit on the earth’s population, the Network are trying to “save the world”. In their attempts to stop them, the group who see themselves as the saviours of humanity are effectively destroying it.

Another distinctive aspect of the programme is its female roles, which are far more aggressive and domineering than the male. Mr Rabbit – who despite the masculine form of address is a woman (MI5 agent Milner, played by Geraldine James) – is the driving force behind the conspiracy, which kills “thousands” along the way. She exercises her superiority in the second series when she and her second-in-command, Leah, order Geoff, their puppet minister in the department of health, to announce “V-day”: a worldwide vaccination (sterilisation) programme. Despite Geoff refusing in episode two because it is “political suicide”, Leah simply tells him to “do as you’re told”. V-day is announced two episodes later.

Utopia throws up an interesting moral dilemma. While the Network commits many acts that would be considered evil, the end goal of their misdeeds is a morally comprehensible (and even, some might say, compassionate) one, ensuring that humans in the future will be able to live without “tearing each other to shreds” – to quote Mr Rabbit. Surely the principle of ensuring it never gets to the point where “there’s 10 billion living on a planet that can only support one”, is right? At the same time, most would see the sterilisation of masses of people are morally indefensible, regardless of the outcome. Utopia raises the stakes and immerses us in a world where choices must be made, here and now. The show urges us to look beyond good and bad, moral and immoral, to the difficulty of the question at hand.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump