Director: Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Michael Shannon, Sofia Boutella
Writer: Ramin Bahrani, based on the novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Review by Michael Walls-Kelly
Fire is your home, Montag. Burn away.
Like the man character in the film, Fahrenheit 451 is too restrained to truly live up to its full potential. The novel by Ray Bradbury and the 1966 film of the same name by Francois Truffaut are a lot to live up to. This adaptation wisely diverges a lot, but it still can’t help but feel outdated and same-y. The production design has a low-budget Blade Runner by way of The Hunger Games feel to it without the benefit of being able to create a full world. It feels like there are only a handful of inhabitants in this dystopian future. It’s hard to fully envision the scope of the world-changing events we keep hearing about.
On the plus side, the handful of characters we do get to see are played by some great actors. Montag (Michael B. Jordan) is a fireman dedicated to burning books, just as Benjamin Franklin intended when he started the first fire department. Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) is his superior and mentor, they and the rest of the firemen are like internet celebrities. Their images are displayed on the side of skyscrapers while they put on a show for the public, comments, and emoticons from viewers streaming across the image the entire time. Clarisse (Sofia Boutella) is an informant for Beatty and works with the “Eels,” an underground terrorist group dedicated to saving books and history that are considered harmful to regular citizens.
The film starts feeling light and underdeveloped early on. Naturally, there are updates to the source material, but they come off a little half-assed. The basic details from the novel are there, but the newer stuff is thrown in — one mentioned of “the internet of old” — that ends up confusing the timeline and making the metaphors seem lazy. The visuals of Twitch streams or Periscopes are used without making any sort of comment on them or trying to them into the broader criticisms of the story. It ends up feeling like window dressing to try to match the story more literally to our present day concerns. It doesn’t work.
Ramin Bahrani’s idea of this dystopian reality draws from Blade Runner, which is the go-to for dystopian futures, so it’s hard to fault him for that. Sadly the finished project feels like a direct-to-video take on the subject from the mid-2000’s. I’m not sure what the budget for the project was, but it feels like Bahrani was trying to do a lot with a little. Get used to darkly lit warehouses and tightly shot street corners. Everything feels so claustrophobic and constrained, which does have the benefit of working to represent the boxed-off mindset of the public in this reality. The final few images are actually a decent payoff to this, coming off like a breath of fresh air, but it’s not really worth the hour and a half of cramped framing preceding it.
Michael B. Jordan is a compelling actor to watch, but he’s not a miracle worker. Montag gets more and more interested in forbidden books and ideas, and the story unfolds about as you’d expect it would, with Jordan being carted from location to location and being asked to stare a lot. It’s a role any number of actors could play, which is a waste. He does get to be charming early on during a book burning demonstration in front of children, but the only other time he comes to life is when he’s working opposite the only fully successful part of this adaptation.
Michael Shannon is a great actor who always creates a performance worth watching. Beatty is a man with a raging inner turmoil. He spends his nights writing on pieces of rolling paper and then burning them. It isn’t just basic writing or scribbled quotes but actual critical analysis of philosophers like Nietzsche and Hobbes, presumably books he’s had to read due to his position. But he’s a hardliner. He’s stuck in his place in the world. Shannon really sells this conflict as well as his discomfort and resolve. Especially when it comes to punishing Montag because he understands him completely. As Beatty says:
I too burn with desire. But I would rather walk with my brother in the darkness than go alone in the light.
The story also involves something called Ominous, which is the collective knowledge of mankind in a strand of DNA that’s being smuggled up to Canada in a bird. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but whatever. The movie itself doesn’t seem to care about it either. It’s as if it needs a MacGuffin to turn the last act into a standard sci-fi race against the clock. Ultimately the whole film ends up feeling like it’s running out the clock and going through the motions. That’s a real waste when you have this level of talent involved.
Verdict: Skip it. After writing about the movie more I came close to recommending it, but it’s still a marginal skip. There’s a lot to like about the adaptation, primarily Michael Shannon’s performance. However, there are too many unexplored avenues and missed opportunities. I enjoyed the chemistry between the leads. I’d watch another film starring Jordan and Shannon, ideally one that gave Jordan more to sink his teeth into. Even accounting for my high expectations Fahrenheit 451 left me underwhelmed and your time would be better spent watching different Jordan or Shannon films, or the underrated 1966 adaptation of the novel by François Truffaut. Hell, you could also just crack open the book and enjoy.
Fahrenheit 451 airs on HBO on Saturday, May 19, 2018.