Published On: Wed, May 16th, 2018

Fahrenheit 451 movie spends more energy on tech than character or story

There are some books you should read when you’re young and I include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 on that list.

Set in a future dystopia where ideas are dangerous and books are banned, it’s exactly the kind of story to ignite (pun intended) a youthful imagination. It blows your mind open, and cements your love of reading and appreciation for books as precious gifts.

But revisit those books as an adult and you may find them a tad … quaint. The stuff that once thrilled you now feels kind of hokey, simple, a bit of a stunt.

I can see why writer/director Ramin Bahrani, the good folks at HBO, and co-stars Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon thought 2018 might be a propitious time to update 451.

Global crises abound; far-right politicians are proposing radical “solutions”; the U.S. is embroiled in a civil war of ideology; facts are malleable and historical memory is under threat — all conditions Bradbury foresaw when he published his novel in 1953.

I’m sure Bahrani imagined shivers running up all our spines when Shannon’s fearsome enforcer barks lines like, “If you don’t want a person unhappy, you don’t give them two sides of a question to worry about” and “a tyrant will invent all kinds of suffering to prove he is a man.”

Unfortunately, this new telefilm spends too much of its energy on showing off its groovy tech, and not enough on character or story. Jordan can do a lot with his big brown eyes, but even he can’t find a coherent emotional through-line for his character Montag’s transformation from gung-ho fireman (book burner) to mankind-saving radical.

As well, the plot keeps tripping into its own holes: if the government banned books two generations ago, why are firemen still finding caches of them? If banning books is supposed to make its citizens happy, why are so many so miserable and living in squalor? If (spoiler alert) the rebels have figured out a way to inject culture into something’s DNA, why not inject it into people and be done with it? And could some executive somewhere not have said, “Hey, maybe we should cast some firewomen, too?”

Here’s the danger of this golden age of television: projects that may have been fine in an earlier era simply don’t measure up. It’s really hard to work up much excitement for an OK dystopia movie when you’ve got The Handmaid’s Tale doing brilliant dystopia a couple of clicks away. As far as character transformations go, I’ve seen more meaningful and moving realizations in an episode of Queer Eye.

Maybe we’re all conditioned these days to expect literary stories to play out in miniseries form, where we can revel in the texture. A two-hour movie actually needs more plot now. It needs to implode, like a black hole. I’m sorry to report that this one fizzles out.

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Fahrenheit 451 movie spends more energy on tech than character or story