2018 | unrated (PG-13 equivalent) | starring Michael B. Jordon, Michael Shannon, Sofia Boutella, Khandi Alexander | directed by Ramin Bahrani | 1hr 40mins |
Studio Pitch: It’s relevant. It’s so relevant – but not for the reasons it thinks it is.
Future dystopian movies have been en vogue for the last 10 years thanks to the surge of YA novels about oppressive societies, tyrannical governments and the teenagers who fight them. But it isn’t until now that a studio has gone back to the sci-fi dystopian classics of George Orwell or Ray Bradbury. In HBO’s TV adaptation of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, 451 isn’t just the temperature that books burn but the number of the firefighting department. 451, is all over the movie, and I’m just speculating here, but it seems like the reason this dystopian movie got unearthed was because an HBO producer noticed that the first 2 digits of a temperature and the chronological number of the current occupant of the White House were the same. Clever, sure, but it also goes a long way to explain why this Fahrenheit 451 feels rushed into release, thin in the drama department and lacking any real meaty ideas.
The best lines in the film are the ones quoting classic literature, about perception and imagination and what it means to be a free-thinking human in a world where we form into self-restricting norms. Once again, Michael Shannon plays the tyrannical, radical villain who steadfastly leads his book-burning firefighters, treating it not just as a job to do but one to be done with arch villain glee. He doesn’t just burn the books but stands before young hot shot Montag (Michael B. Jordan, always good), waives them around, mocks their words and gives lengthy monologues about how dangerous they are. We get a few world building one-liners that the firefighters were created, not because a fascist government took over, but because the people demanded it. People filled with fear after a 2nd American civil war. Shannon sells the impossible nugget at the center of the fascism: that facts and reality only have one logical viewpoint, that alternate viewpoints and questions of authority only come from the insane and only work to deliberately confuse the masses. Debate, opinion and imagination have no place in the world.
Michael B. Jordan, one of the best actors of his generation coming off a terrific villain turn in Black Panther, has almost nothing to work with in Montag. The first half of the film is it’s most interesting. When we get our first looks at how the world works, how history has been revised, how ever-present home technology keeps a watchful eye and how Montag struts around for the cameras broadcasting on skyscrapers as the classic hot-shot. The best scene in the movie is one where he explains to kids in an assembly the danger of books and they cheer while he pulls out his flame thrower (that looks like an alien weapon in an Xbox game) and burns them on stage.
Eventually Montag has to wake up, to scratch the itch that Michael Shannon’s Captain Beatty says infects all firefighters to know what’s in these books and why people are dying – indeed lighting themselves on fire – to protect. Neither Jordan nor the movie sell the turn. It feels like a few scenes are missing. Montag becomes curious by the suicidal actions of a crazy woman when the same event would just as easily go to more prove Beatty’s point that the books inspire madness. There is no struggle or confusion or satisfying breaking point. As the movie winds into the rebellion – one lead by a triple agent (Sofia Boutella) feeding intel to Beatty and the resistance – it gets less interesting exactly when these movies usually get better. It looks like a TV movie with a budget possibly holding it back and a director lacking the invention to do more with less.
Even if this movie were made with more inspired pieces, a straightf0rward adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 in 2018 still feels like a satirical missed opportunity. Opportunities that weren’t present when Truffaut first adapted Bradbury’s novel in 1966. This, after all, is a story about the dangers of burning paper in a society that has increasingly gone paperless already. 60 years after Bradbury’s novel physical book stores are going bankrupt. We didn’t need to toss books in the street and burn them because we digitized them. To Kill a Mockingbird is being pulled off school curriculums for being racist, or more nebulous, problematic. The internet has democratized opinions until they are as worthless as gossip and has turned our preferences into algorithm-tailored echo chambers of like opinions. Social media created virtual spaces where bots can shut down free speech by branding them alt-right or radial left. The internet created a literal court of public opinion where speech has real world consequences and everyone is guilty until proven innocent. Why am I saying all of this instead of this movie?
This is satire ripe and waiting to be plucked, but HBO’s film sticks to closely to the original novel to be as relevant as it thinks it is.
Also, can we update the books with the next remake. I’d kind of like to see a resistance group hoarding a bunch of YA dystopian books, Michael Crichton’s Sphere and a thousand James Patterson books.