Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel of utopian nightmare continues to have resonance, with its depiction of a society in which humans are genetically engineered, not born; where aging, disease and emotional discomfort are nonexistent, as are art and literature; and where a stress-obliterating drug is dispensed to citizens by the state. This generally well-acted adaptation builds effectively on the central ideas of “Brave New World,” but also makes some serious missteps in transferring the cautionary tale to the small screen.
Telepic does a terrific job of creating the immaculate high-tech metropolis where citizens — stratified into Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta classes — efficiently serve the government. The upper-echelon Alphas are committed to the pursuit of pleasure and looking good (the gyms where they work out on machines aren’t all that different from today’s exercise emporia). Monogamy is antisocial , and the nighttime is devoted to promiscuous pursuits at bars where the feel-good drug soma is consumed in mass quantities. Axioms of the new thinking (“Everyone belongs to everyone else,” “When the individual feels, the community reels”) are constantly piped into public places, reinforcing the social agenda.
Bernard Marx (Peter Gallagher) and Lenina Crowne (Rya Kihlstedt) have been seeing each other beyond the accepted one-night stand, drawing the suspicion and scorn of their peers. He works in the Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning Center, where the matter of perfecting “happiness” among the lower castes is of immediate concern; she’s in the field of educational conditioning, indoctrinating young Alphas in the superiority of this postwar society.
As high-level Alphas, Bernard and Lenina are entitled to visit the non-incorporated regions where humans still live like “savages.” Whereas the source novel devotes a significant portion of its length to these outlying Reservations, pic visits one just long enough for the couple’s weekend getaway. Their helicopter crashes in the desert landscape, where they meet John Cooper (Tim Guinee) and his alcoholic mother, Linda (Sally Kirkland), who Bernard decides to take back to civilization as “raw material” for research.
The Shakespeare-spouting John becomes a media celeb known as the Savage (pic has some fun spoofing TV news reporters and commentators), while Linda overindulges in the soma. Alpha women want to “have” John, and people emulate him, but the somewhat menacing DHC, or Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning (Miguel Ferrer), believes he poses a threat to the social order.
It turns out the DHC has more personal reasons for wanting the Savage out of the picture. Meanwhile, his boss, the Controller (Leonard Nimoy), decked out in high-fashion guru garb, takes a more reasoned approach to the matter of the Savage, who becomes increasingly disillusioned with the “brave new world” in which he finds himself. The latter two engage in a dialogue about art and truth and science that drives home the ideals and sacrifices of the new society.
For all its implied disapproval of the hedonistic culture it’s chronicling, telepic seems to revel in images of flesh that don’t really advance the story. And there’s a ham-fisted, soap-opera feel to scenes between John and Lenina in which he resists her advances because “this isn’t love.” Overall, directors Leslie Libman and Larry Williams and scripters Dan Mazur and David Tausik err on the side of making the story too romantic, too recognizable — which perhaps was their aim but nonetheless robs the pic of a potentially more unsettling edge.
Principal thesps are all fine, as far as their roles go, with Nimoy making the strongest impression as the bureaucrat who appreciates the artifacts of the old world but knows they are no longer useful. Kirkland, in an underwritten role , overdoes the damaged-flower routine.
The futuristic production design is aces. (Other tech credits were difficult to judge on the rough cut reviewed.) Disconcertingly choppy editing in several scenes serves no purpose other than to distract. Pic’s crucial mistake, however, is its injection of primetime optimism into an essentially bleak story. Eleventh-hour melodrama and ad-slick images of a happily-ever-after ending for two of the protags constitute a jarring departure from the source text: It’s akin to retelling “1984” and having Winston Smith enter Room 101 to find a surprise party awaiting him. Nice sentiment, wrong utopia.