Monday, May 28, 2018

Movie Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ramin Bahrani.
Written by: Amir Naderi and Ramin Bahrani based on the novel by Ray Bradbury.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan (Guy Montag), Michael Shannon (Captain Beatty),
Sofia Boutella (Clarisse McClellan), Lilly Singh (Raven), Raoul Bhaneja (Bobby Gosh), Lynne Griffin (Old Woman / Grapes of Wrath), Martin Donovan (Commissioner Nyari), Ted Whittall (Major Ron Curtis), Andy McQueen (Gustavo), Joe Pingue (Wayne Anderson), Khandi Alexander  (Toni Morrison), Saad Siddiqui (Fireman Stone), Dylan Taylor (Fireman Douglas), Cindy Katz (Yuxie).
The idea of doing a new version of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 in the era of Donald Trump and Fake News is a good one – and the idea updating it to account for the rise of the internet, which Bradbury could not have foreseen, is an even better one. There are any number of ways this could have and should worked – and yet, for some reason, the HBO film version of the story is just sort of flat. It was directed by Ramin Bahrani, the talented director behind films like Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo and 99 Homes – doing probably his most ambitious film to date. It has two great actors I the two pivotal roles in Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon (who should have won an Oscar for Bahrani’s 99 Homes), and yet after the film establishes its near future time and place – yet another film that basically uses Blade Runner as a visual template – it doesn’t really go anywhere with its story. It’s all just sort of bland and forgettable.
In the film, Jordan plays Guy Montag, a fireman, but in this future world firemen do not put out fires, but instead start them – burning what they call graffiti, which is what the rest of us would call books. Montag works for Captain Beatty (Shannon) – who is about to get promoted, and as a result, so is Montag – into Beatty’s current role. Montag has never questioned what it is they do, or why they do it. He doesn’t know what is in all those books – and doesn’t much care. But Beatty does – at least in some ways. He tells Montag that eventually every fireman gets curious about what it is they burn – and it’s clear that Beatty has more access to more of that graffiti than Montag does. But this has just made Beatty into a more dedicated true believer – at least publicly (he does things in private that would get in trouble – but he keeps it there, in private). Acting on a tip by Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), who really does believe in the books, but is trying to get her life back, they discover an old woman in a house full of books. Curious, Montag takes one – Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground – and tries to read it, but can make no sense of it. Returning to Clarisse, he begins to rethink what it is he never questioned before.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the new Fahrenheit 451 is that the film takes the charismatic Jordan, and completely misuses him. After the early scenes of Montag posturing for the crowds and the cameras, he doesn’t really do anything afterwards, and remains a dull, uninteresting character. Clarisse is even less fleshed out than Montag – and so when the film pushes them together in some sort of romance, it really doesn’t work. Only Shannon in really effective here – particularly in a scene right before they burn all those books, explaining a little background on how all this started – complete with a racial slur, which is proper to use in this context, but still needed to be explored further.
Because of all the updating that needed to be done for the story, there is a lot of additions and subtractions to Bradbury’s original novel in the film – those who are obsessed with fealty to the source material so therefore skip this one entirely. There is no reason why an adaptation needs to be an exact copy of the original – however, much of what is added to this version is either ill thought through, or just downright silly (the birds). I appreciate the effort, but the result doesn’t really work. Bradbury’s novel has survived for so long for a reason – so if you’re going to change it, make sure it works. This just doesn’t work.
I will say that I was never really bored by the film – I wanted to know where it was going, and no matter how silly the story got, I will say Bahrani does a fine job of directing it. The problem really is that the screenplay changes too much about the original novel, without replacing it with anything nearly as interesting. The intentions behind the project are good – the result, unfortunately, is not.

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