One of author Ray Bradbury’s most famous works, Fahrenheit 451 has received a new adaptation by Ramin Bahrani, director of Chop Shop and 99 Homes. The director also re-teamed with Michael Shannon (who co-starred in 99 Homes) and it might well be the only smart move the filmmaker made, because not much else comes together, visually or narratively.
Fahrenheit 451 is by no means terrible: it’s just not good. Michael B. Jordan is a likeable lead and his journey from fascist to revolutionary holds the attention, but where the film falls flat on its face is the zeitgeist-grabbing appropriation of fake news, social media trends and live entertainment, which edge the movie – whether deliberately or not – towards the larger-than-life satire of The Running Man. When the firemen rock up to get their Nazi book-burning on, it’s projected live on telly, online and against skyscrapers – giant faces on buildings is, of course, nicked from Blade Runner. The screen is filled, too, with live reactions from people at home, who send in messages of support or disapproval. Jordan’s Montag is a rock star fireman. But the whole thing comes off like Bahrani saw a Facebook Live event and thought ‘et voilà!’ It all gets a bit “Who loves you and who do you love?”
Set in Cleveland, after a second civil war left 8 million dead, the government has decided to ban all books and re-write history. Benjamin Franklin was the creator of the book-burning firemen, for example. Anybody who transgresses the law is known as an eel. And eels are slippery, slimy and gross. So, basically, it’s a film very much for – and about – right now, a cry against Trump’s America and the spread of fake news. For we do live at a time when a political meme holds more weight than actual facts and a tweet spreading disinformation has more cultural cache than the truth.
Michael Shannon is the film’s MVP. As Captain Beatty, a true believer who likes to spend his evenings writing aphorisms on cigarette papers, he exudes menace and outright hypocrisy. Unlike his pal Montag, there’s the sense his journey from fireman to realising the whole world is a lie has already been completed and that he likes things just the way they are. His stance is most definitely ‘ignorance is bliss’. Once Montag’s eyes are opened, however, they cannot be shut. Inevitably, the two bros becomes enemies.
Co-starring Sofia Boutella, Fahrenheit 451 is a limp and visually uninspiring film. The electric neon colour palette looks like refried Nicolas Winding Refn and Bahrani’s changes to Bradbury’s texts (watch out for an amusing homage to the great sci-fi writer) fail to hit the mark. Sometimes, there is a greater cinema crime to commit than turning in a bad movie – it’s to turn in a ho-hum one, which more or less wastes talented leads and what should be a captivating story about knowledge under attack. In trying to make it hip, current and satirical, Bahrani has made a creative error in judgement.
HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 will be broadcast exclusively on Sky Atlantic in the UK later in 2018.