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Brave New World on Peacock a chilling dystopia in Ikea gray

Review: Streaming on Peacock now, the adaptation of Aldous Huxley's sci-fi classic is absorbing but nebulous.

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Alden Ehrenreich explores a Brave New World.

NBC/Peacock

When I first read Aldous Huxley's famous 1932 novel Brave New World, I expected something fusty and old-fashioned. I wasn't prepared for how scathingly direct or unsettlingly dark it was, and still is today.

The new TV adaptation, available on NBC's streaming service Peacock, re-examines the story for a modern age. It certainly adds a dash of cursing, a touch of violence, some Radiohead and a load of people getting their kit off. But it lacks a certain directness. The Handmaid's Tale is about sexism. Watchmen is about racism. Westworld is about robots in cowboy hats. Brave New World is about genetic engineering, but it's also about social conditioning, and over-medication, or the loss of intimacy, or possibly technology and surveillance, and also maybe socialism is bad?

Aldous Huxley's scathing novel came before George Orwell's 1984 and presents a sort of flip side to Orwell's infamous dystopia. Orwell imagined a viciously totalitarian future, and even today, the mention of Big Brother is never far away as authoritarian governments come to the fore. Huxley, meanwhile, imagined a world of repression rather than oppression, a world where we're all too happy to be distracted from our subjugation. Now nearly a century old, Huxley's vision was perhaps more prescient as we sleepwalk into a brave new world of our own.

But the fact remains: Huxley's vision is somewhat wide-ranging, especially compared with The Handmaid's Tale or 1984 or other dystopian fictions. By drawing on all the book's various themes, the TV adaptation certainly throws up interesting questions and subtexts. But that also makes it a little unfocused. I'm not trying to be reductionist: This version of Brave New World is absorbing, uncomfortably compelling and beautifully produced. It's even pretty funny. The creators include showrunner Dave Wiener (Homecoming, Fear The Walking Dead); directors Owen Harris (Black Mirror) and Ellen Kuras (Umbrella Academy); and comic iconoclast Grant Morrison; and they craft an intricately unsettling future -- then make you itch to burn it down.

Sure, it's not as bold or as audacious or as declarative as other recent highbrow sci-fi shows, but that isn't a bad thing. It's just ambiguous rather than audacious, carried largely by the characters rather than the concept.

The story begins in New London, where there is no privacy, no family, and no monogamy. Everyone is very happy. That's because the haughtily emotionless elite of this society accept a tyrannical hierarchy and total lack of personal freedom in exchange for technological trinkets, mood-altering drugs and neon-lit rave orgies. Those bits don't actually look so bad... I mean, who needs privacy when you can have an augmented reality contact lens? Who needs freedom when you can have neon rave orgies? See -- that's how it creeps up on you.

Everybody's happy in the Brave New World.

NBC/Peacock

But not everybody is happy in this brave new world. Sensitive bureaucrat Bernard is puzzled as to why a cloned drone worker would jump from a great height. Frustrated scientist Lenina wonders if socially siloing people by their DNA is a tad unfair. Together, they begin to explore boldly transgressive ideas, like not having sex all the time and maybe even easing off the color-coded happy pills. That is until a trip outside of their beautiful bubble introduces them to the savage alternative -- specifically, a savage named John.

John is played by Alden Ehrenreich, who recently played the young Han Solo. In a sense, he's our killer robot, the potential spark that could burn everything down, but despite Ehrenreich's smoldering, the character is something of a cypher. In the first half of the season, John is caught up in by events, storm-tossed by the actions and agendas of others, his motivations as blank as his expression. The same isn't true of his mother, a disturbed and drunk blonde with a haunting backstory. The scene-stealing actor playing this haunted character will probably look familiar, but it may take you a second to make the connection when you see Demi Moore's name in the credits.

The first few episodes are mainly carried by the unhappy couple, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, her luminous ladyship from Downton Abbey, and Harry Lloyd, previously a scene-styling villain in Doctor Who. Suave and sleek in their understatedly futuristic wardrobes, they manage to find the humanity in these chic apparatchiks, inspiring sympathy as we learn of their imperfections in a "perfect" world. 

In this finely-balanced future, everybody aspires to an emotional state as level and blank as a concrete floor. That's reflected in the show's actual floors, and walls and clothes. Dressed in anonymous grey and beige suits, the characters drift amid steel and concrete sets that look like a WeWork and a prison all at the same time. Everything's the grey of an Ikea sofa or a headstone.

As in many sci-fi shows, the production design does a lot of the heavy lifting, subtly immersing you in the beautiful but vacant society. The understated yet striking aesthetic is reminiscent of Gattaca, a movie clearly inspired by Brave New World's genetics anxiety that also used vaguely retro-futuristic design to make its sci-fi predictions feel both timely and timeless.

Clipped English accents and stuffy styling also make the dystopian society hark back to twentieth century England, where the book was written. CG whistles and bells add cutting-edge extras to Huxley's vision, including contact lenses connecting everyone in an intrusive social network. Satire!

Things are very different outside the society's bubble. Just for kicks, the medicated new worlders leave their antiseptic society to jump on a rocket and fly to the other side of the world, where they can experience the unshaven thrills of the so-called "Savage Lands." This walk on the wild side is a voyeuristic theme park gawking at the misery of those left behind by the future, filled with scuzzy denizens who dress up in colorful outfits and act out their delightfully primitive behavior for the education and titillation of the visiting new worlders. Their depraved old world is everything the brave new world isn't: rural, traditional, and very American.

There are echoes of Westworld in these two overlapping worlds. One is a future that looks like the future, and the other feels stalled in the present. It's a fun contrast, but once again the nebulous premise means Brave New World lacks the excitement sizzling from the screen in Westworld. In HBO's sci-fi western, there's a simple and direct tension: when are the robots going to flip out? Brave New World is less immediate. Or, to give it the benefit of the doubt, more ambiguous. At least it's easier to follow than Westworld's brain-wrecking timelines. But even despite the breadths of themes explored, there are some gaps. Primarily, when a story deals with inequality, genetics and so-called "savages," it feels like a glaring omission to have no direct acknowledgement of race in the fictional world.

It's certainly a good time for sci-fi classics coming to the screen. The Handmaid's Tale already raised the bar for TV (and scored a hit for Hulu). Denis Villeneuve's take on Dune is coming soon, as is Apple TV's epic version of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, and Brave New World feels like a curtain raiser for those forthcoming adaptations. It's a well-made and thought-provoking adaptation, even if it could be a little braver. 

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