“Brave New World” offers plenty of new, but not enough brave

Brave New World Brave New World (Peacock)

Peacock’s loose adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s classic looks nice, but is empty under the surface.

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As we round the corner and begin to face 2021, the image of what the new post-pandemic world will be like is still hazing. The world in Peacock’s forthcoming television adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World feels shimmering and new, but there isn’t enough bravery to make it anything revolutionary.

The series takes great license with the original work, so this won’t be on schools’ remote learning curriculum, but Huxley’s original concepts remain intact. In the near-distant future, the world population has been controlled by artificial birth and stratified into rigid biologically determined classes. There is no privacy, no family, and no monogamy. Everyone is happy, and their happiness is controlled and monitored through tiny “pills” called soma (any flashbacks to English class yet?).

We open with Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay), a worker who’s become disenchanted with polyamory. She strikes up a friendship with psychologist Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd) as she tries to figure out why she feels out of sorts. After something traumatic disturbs their idyllic worldview, the pair decide to leave New London and visit The Savage Lands.

The Savage Lands of Peacock’s Brave New World are a Westworld-type of living amuseument park with three human zoos, each exhibiting the “barbarities”of the past: crime, consumerism, and selfishness/monogamy. The Savage Lands are inhabited by rebellious outcasts, humans who have not been culturally and/or biologically accepted into New London. Amongst these is our hero, the still tiresomely named John the Savage (Alden Ehrenreich) and his mother Linda (Demi Moore).

During Lenina and Bernard’s visit, a band of armed rebels incite a conflict that wounds Bernard and causes the four to become entangled. As they work to help each other escape back to New London, they soon discover their connection runs deeper than they know. It’s this revelation that will eventually bring about the downfall of inner and outer worlds.

The series takes great license with the original work, so this won’t be on schools’ remote learning curriculum, but Huxley’s original concepts remain intact.

We are immediately struck by how beautiful the worlds of the series are. David Lee’s production design balances crisp technofuturism with dusty and gritty outside worlds while making them feel like they share the same planet, just like he did for HBO’s Watchmen. Indeed, much of this series will feel familiar to fans of speculative sci-fi media. The world elegantly resonates with Westworld, Snowpiercer, and, perhaps most directly, Karyn Kusama’s Æon Flux, completing a cycle of inspiration that started with Huxley’s original work and has now returned.

It is clear that technology is ready to give us some really exquisite sci-fi visuals. Brave New World is sci-fi for a society acclimating to virtual and augmented reality at a very concrete and steady pace. We, perhaps to Huxley’s horror, have a better understanding of what a composit-omnipresence looks like with people being able to document their different perspectives on the same event.

The technology is also ready to give us some deliciously explicit content. Not only is the show beautiful to look at, it’s quite steamy as well. If Peacock shows any bravery with this production, it’s definitely in all the sex and swearing.

Though showrunner David Wiener (Fear the Walking Dead, Homecoming) has successfully orchestrated a confident look/feel to the series, it’s still a bit unsure of how it wants to use the source text and what to say with it. Sure, there are well-intended insertions of “the modern” such as the performance at the House of Want which reenacts the horror of Black Friday. The park-style world is a great idea for a variation on the original idea. But the ironies only repeat the problem, they don’t articulate their critiques in a coherent way as to mark out what’s really at stake on a macro-level.

Wiener can’t be fully blamed for this. Huxley’s World State is a confusing mix of skepticisms about Soviet Socialism and American Fordism. It has mixed feelings about a host of social issues ranging from, and certainly not exclusive to: private property, consumerism, media, biocapitalism, and feminism (notice the main indoctrinated characters from New London are Lenina Crowne and Bernard Marx). For better or worse, Brave New World persists because each society can see their fears in and between the text.

“Free?…from what?” Lenina asks early on about what it is she’s really running from and towards. By the end, I was still asking this question. It’s difficult to see what Wiener and company were trying to say with this adaptation and have missed an opportunity to explore Huxley’s fears of American capitalism more intently.

It makes common complaints about capitalism and empire for being indoctrinating and corrupting, but also supports a narrative in which deregulation is the route to happiness. The character named John the Savage remains a Tarzan-like god amongst the natives who returns to confront his birthright, even if he eventually finds it repulsive. The dissonance comes in the show’s failing to see all those things as related.

Streaming television is an odd medium to present Brave New World because any formed criticism of capitalism is dulled immediately by its intense privatization of content coupled with commercial breaks, which will out New World any adaptation. Much of the criticism about the new world order in the series comes through in faux-commercials. So to have the series then cut out and actual commercials enter feels like an unintended but bitter revelation about the futility of the struggle against capitalism which undermines any hope the series is trying to convey.

While the series looks and feels fresh, the a“woke”n/disillusioned male hero raging against the system he was born from feels wilted today. Instead of staking braver claims about what a corrupt World State would look like and what it would take to topple it, Peacock’s Brave New World plays it safe and rehearses empty criticisms that are undone by its own content and platform.

Brave New World premieres on Peacock starting July 15th.

Brave New World Trailer:

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