Brave New World is smart, sexy sci-fi with identity issues
NBC enters the streaming wars swinging with the long-overdue adaptation for Aldous Huxley's sci-fi titan.
Brave New World begins with the most unusual HR meeting. Lenina, a "Beta Plus" played by Jessica Brown Findlay, is called into her boss Bernard Marx's (Harry Lloyd) office. Immediately, she's bombarded by images of her having hair-raising sex with a colleague, Henry Foster (Sen Mitsuji).
In our world, this is a lawsuit. But not in New London. There is no privacy and no exclusivity. Lenina is having a meeting with her boss because she's not having enough sex with enough people.
"I can never seem to wrap around my head around the, um, selfishness," says Bernard, played by a wormy Harry Lloyd. He struggles to say "monogamous." It hangs like a vulgar cuss one tries not to say over tea. Bernard accuses Lenina of withholding herself and Henry from, well, everyone. "Your colleagues have every right to Henry Foster as much as you do."
Welcome to Brave New World, a new show based on Aldous Huxley's 1932 science fiction novel and NBC's first big bet with its Peacock streaming service. Finally, the book that either excited you or put you to sleep in high school gets the lavish, and long overdue, 21st-century adaptation.
The good news is that Brave New World, from David Wiener (Amazon's Homecoming), leaves the titanic book's ideas intact, with a handful of liberties to suit 2020. It also has enough sex and nudity to make Game of Thrones look modest, but the show's ruminations on freedom, identity, and colonialism still permeate its nine episodes just as they do in Huxley's original text. It's an overall fantastic show and should be celebrated for doing the impossible, all without any corny 21st-century updates like replacing "Oh, Ford!" with "Oh, Apple!"
But, and maybe it's because of the book's irremovable influence on pop culture over the last 90 years, Brave New World fails to differentiate from television's numerous other science fictions. Even in an opportune moment (Westworld is a baffling mess and The Mandalorian, arguably the biggest serial sci-fi hit in the last year, was effectively a Western), Brave New World is too familiar — in style, story, and characterization — to live up to trailblazing source text.
In the future of New London, society is maintained by too many drugs, not enough privacy, and a strict pecking order. Segmented by class, the civilized revel in knowing what, and who, everyone does. Abundant sex and stimulants, primarily the mood upper "soma" that is dispensed like candy, make up any given Tuesday. But outside New London, "savages" live life in the old way, with monogamy, natural birth, and music with words.
Bernard Marx, an "Alpha" who never feels like one, takes a trip with Lenina (Findlay) to the "Savage Lands," where New Londoners entertain themselves spectating "primitives" in ghastly old practices, like weddings. But when the natives revolt, the two are sheltered by John (Alden Ehrenreich), a savage whose mother (Demi Moore) spent his childhood filling his head with tall tales about his father, New London's most important man. After Lenina and Bernard return home, John becomes a celebrity who wrestles with fame and culture shock as the three enter a love triangle that threatens to undo the balance of the new world.
Brave New World remains one of the most influential sci-fi novels today. It is a giant, as referenced and parodied as George Orwell's 1984. So it's unfortunate in how the show bears similarities to the likes of Westworld (a theme resort with a native uprising) and The Hunger Games (class warfare, gaudy fashions). Even Alden Ehrenreich's John bears a resemblance to Chris Pratt's Star-Lord from the Marvel movies, down to an attachment to music players with orange ear pads. That Brave New World is heralded by book critics for originality and studied in classrooms means the TV show had an awful lot to live up to. It's disappointing that it falls short.
But Brave New World isn't a lost cause. Independent of its source material and contemporaries, the TV version is still a compelling drama that effortlessly pokes and prods at us meaty humans in 2020. Not a lot has changed since 1932: We are still petty, jealous, and beholden to things that cause us grief. Brave New World boldly posits that neither those in "our" world — represented by the Savage Land, evocative of a poor southwestern town lost in time — nor those in New London have things figured out.
Brave New World the TV series wisely emphasizes Huxley's best ideas, disposes the worst, and mixes in its own. Huxley could never have imagined viral culture and live streaming but organically weaves it into his themes of surrendering privacy. Lenina, who had no personality in the book, is pivotal in the show as a fiery Findlay who gives her wants and needs — something Huxley never bothered with. And Ehrenreich shines as John, diverging from Huxley's colonialist view of a rural foreigner stumbling into white society to become a Bruce Springsteen protagonist wandering a grotesque alien planet.
Brave New World finds relevance almost a hundred years after its publishing in an adaptation deserving of its stature. It is engaging and provoking thanks to its rich source material, lively performances, and smart decisions about plotting, world-building, and art direction. It's done away with Huxley's problematic aspects and raises modern questions about the loss of intimacy and consent, allowing Brave New World to enter 2020 as daring as ever.
That it may get lost in the crowded science fiction space, no thanks to shows similarly influenced by Huxley, is a bitter and ironic pill to swallow.
Brave New World premieres July 15, 2020 on Peacock.