Review: ‘Fahrenheit 451’ Has Fire and Fury but Sheds Little Light

Posted May 17, 2018 3:28 p.m. EDT

Early in “Fahrenheit 451,” Montag (Michael B. Jordan) readies himself in front of his bathroom mirror, which doubles as a supersize smart screen, pulsating with news updates and a never-ending river of responses from his social-media followers.

Am I a bad person if my first response was, “Wow, if I had one of those, I would never have to worry about dropping my iPhone in the sink again”?

Probably. Even if you are not familiar with the Ray Bradbury source novel, “Fahrenheit” makes it quickly, hammeringly clear that it is a cautionary tale. You’ll get that from the urban-noir aesthetic, the school-indoctrination sessions and the fact that Montag’s job as a “fireman” involves not fighting fires but starting them — burning humanity’s last remaining books as well as their digital reproductions, all of which have been outlawed.

Electronic media change, but the anxiety about them remains. In Bradbury’s day, it was the sudden rise of TV as America’s pastime; today it’s the ubiquitous screens that have us checking Twitter during our morning ablutions. (I know, I know, I’m trying to quit.)

But the dystopia of the new “Fahrenheit 451,” airing Saturday on HBO, is generic, its critique muddled and its tone as subtle as a flamethrower.

Bradbury’s novel, published in 1953, required some technological and conceptual updating. Some of its concerns are timeless, others specifically 1950s. It worries about postwar social conformity, anti-intellectualism, McCarthyism and the homogenizing power of the new medium of TV to flatten out differences in thought and make its audience placid.

That last concern — mass media imposing what Dwight Macdonald called “masscult” — is in one sense flipped today. Critics of niche and social media today also see a dumbed-down society, but one that’s polarized and agitated, divided and subdivided into mutually hostile subcultures and media bubbles.

The director, Ramin Bahrani, who wrote the screenplay with Amir Naderi, is trying to retrofit the “Black Mirror” anxieties of today onto a story built of “Twilight Zone"-style Cold War preoccupations. Some elements translate, but often the strains show.

Bahrani’s most effective innovations are visual. Where Bradbury envisioned “parlor walls” — video screens that turned homes into immersive televisions — in HBO’s version, nearly everything is a screen. That includes the sides of skyscrapers, which broadcast the exploits of Montag and his crew as a kind of pyromaniacal propaganda reality show.

Books, meanwhile, still survive on the state-approved internet, but condensed into single emoji-strewn paragraphs. “Moby-Dick” now begins: “Ishmael (right-pointing arrow) (anchor) on a (whale) (boat).”

This kind of literature is “all you need,” says Montag’s rigid superior, Capt. Beatty (Michael Shannon). “Anything else will make you sick, crazy.” This future America has no patience for nuance.

Nor does this “Fahrenheit.” Its aesthetic can best be described as Standard Totalitarian Future. Electronic signs read “HAPPINESS IS TRUTH.” Americans have happily surrendered literacy in favor of propaganda and opiate entertainments consumed in virtual-reality lairs. The film also includes, as has become semimandatory these days, a clunky allusion to Trumpism in the firemen’s chant, “Time to burn for America Again!”

The critique is passionate. But it feels incoherent, maybe in part because “Fahrenheit” has been adapted to a more fragmented era of media.

Bradbury’s midcentury warning was that TV was supplanting the culture of the word and the sort of complex thought it promoted. Then video culture further evolved into the cacophonous one of the internet. America, Bahrani’s “Fahrenheit” tells us, rejected that culture along with books, in the name of societal cohesion (too many offensive ideas).

So we replaced it with … more social media? Except with more terrifying men carrying flamethrowers? “Fahrenheit 451” explains this, sort of, in expository downloads that feel like spackle on the narrative cracks.

Jordan (“Creed”) puts flesh on Montag’s conflict — he finds himself drawn to the books he’s charged to destroy, brought blinkingly awake by encountering the willful anti-logic of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From Underground.” But the script does little to give him inner life beyond some flashbacks. Shannon’s imperious enforcer lacks the eccentric spark he brings to his best roles.

The two firemen eventually fall out as Montag becomes close to Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), a member of the Eels, a grim set of rebels who say things like, “The revolution is not a dinner party.” They conserve not just novels, which they have committed to memory, but visual art, films and vinyl LPs. (Vintage record stores, evidently, will be the arsenals of the #resistance.)

Bahrani, whose past work includes closely observed films like “Chop Shop” and “99 Homes,” does prove adept at directing scaled-up action, as the film’s final act moves into thriller mode, building to a pyrotechnic climax and resolving on a lovely visual metaphor. Its passion for the word notwithstanding, “Fahrenheit” works better in the end as image than text.

Additional Information:

‘Fahrenheit 451’

Saturday on HBO