Fahrenheit 451, 2018.
Directed by Ramin Bahrani.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Michael Shannon, Sofia Boutella, Lilly Singh, Khandi Alexander, Mayko Nguyen, and Dylan Taylor.
In a dystopian future America, firemen don’t put out fires but start them by burning books.
Fahrenheit 451 starts out promisingly. The two leads engage in a stimulating boxing match promising a powerful confrontation in the finale. Instead, the movie turns into a black-and-white morality tale with so-so action scenes and below-average special effects. Aside from a handful of startling scenes, the movie never manages to communicate the dread and fear of the original source material.
Based on the novel of the same name, Fahrenheit 451 has Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) experience doubts about his vocation in turning Joyce and the Bible into ashes. Guy is a fireman but in this alternative future firemen don’t put out fires but create them to destroy books. While there are broad similarities between the book and movie, Bahrani makes some crucial changes. Some have minor stylistic consequences such as the profusion of emojis dotting the screen. But other changes that appear small have radical consequences and end up being fatal to the narrative.
In the novel, Guy had a wife but strikes up a friendship with a young and attractive woman, Clarisse McClellan (played here by Sofia Boutella). Whatever the sexual biases in the novel, Guy’s attraction, at least, gave the story a narrative logic the movie lacks. Jordan’s version of Guy is a hazy mess of motivations.
We have some flash backs that hint Guy’s father was assasinated by this futuristic police state but the the viewer is likely to be more confused than enlightened as to why Guy became a fireman – or inexplicably shouts his dialogue repeatedly. Jordan and Boutella make an attractive enough couple but Boutella’s Clarrisse is closer to a walking exposition-machine than an organic character. Not that her exposition helps much at all.
What explanations are given are hopelessly self-contradictory. Books were declared illegal because they made people unhappy; there is also talk of a “Second” Civil War that necessitated the present authoritarian regime but Bahrani fails to explain much. There are clever touches to be sure. Benjamin Franklin was a fireman in his own day burning books – which is rather strange because if fireman have existed for hundreds of years how did all those paperback Penguin books people illegally keep (with translations!) manage to get published? Before that logical problem is allowed to set in, however, Bahrani makes a truly fatal decision beyond the odd Boutella-Jordan pairing that undermines the movie greatly.
In this future, unlike the novel, firemen are not just government officials but media celebrities. The burning of books is taped and Guy has a social media profile. This might be a clever move except it leads to numerous problems. If Guy is such a popular celebrity why are no celebrity photographers shadowing him? Why is he alone instead of fighting off numerous female fans? Why if the burnings are being televised live is Guy’s suspected loyalty take so long to be caught? Science fiction films by their nature will always have problems of logic in trying to present an alternative world but Bahrani’s imagining is self-contradictory to a fault.
Guy’s boss and father figure, Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) spews the fascist rhetoric of the new order with conviction as to why the firemen of this future do what they do: “If you don’t want a person to be unhappy, don’t give them two sides of a question to worry about.” Even as a bad science film premise this makes no sense; a person unhappy even in a world without books. Music can make someone unhappy. Has music been banned in this alternate reality? Of course not. Happiness is certainly a ripe topic for dystopia but since Shannon appears sad in several scenes one wonders how seriously this is meant as a theme.
Still Shannon does communicate some – though not enough – brooding charm and his black, fascistic uniform is a powerful symbol. But Jordan’s charisma, Shannon’s committed performance, and an interesting cameo by Khandi Alexander just aren’t enough to salvage the movie from its poor production design and muddled dialogue.
Bahrani is talented and aiming for large subjects. Not just fascism but celebrity culture, racism, police brutality, hysteria over immigrants, and crowd psychology are being referenced. The movie is both too obvious and too obscure. We never quite understand why Guy makes the leap from disillusioned fascist to joining the resistance (called “eels” for illegals).
The odd tonal shifts also create unexpected responses. Two scenes in particular are extremely funny; one of them being a woman about to self-immolate, which was clearly not intended as comedy. In the end, for a movie about books being burned, the focus is puzzlingly on firemen confiscating hard-drives and re-editing news footage. The Ray Bradbury novel may not have been great but it honed in on the evils of television, this adaptation seems a grab-bag diatribe about all kinds of electronic technology.
Once or twice, Bahrani does give us some arresting images of the book themselves being consumed in flames. But, for the most part, the burning of books (and people) soon becomes tedious. We never feel or care about what would be lost in this what-if world.
Bahrani clearly intends the movie to stand in the company of great sci-fis such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, A Clockwork Orange, and Ex Machina. The problem is that Kubrick even while arguing for free will made fascism, partly, genuinely attractive. But Bahrani never goes as far as making the act of burning books intoxicating creating a movie closer to an intellectual version of the Alex Proyas’s I, Robot than an update of Kubrick or Bradbury.
If the movie is going to truly work though it must enter this ugly territory a la Fight Club where we, at least, momentarily want to be firemen instead of beating the audience over the head with obvious video clips of Hitler and Nazis burning books. This is a movie with great ambitions and noble intentions but sadly lacks the storytelling heft to be the wake-up critique about our media-obsessed culture it desperately wants to be.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★