TV loves dystopian dramas lately. The latest is a modern reworking of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic Fahrenheit 451.
Last adapted for the screen in 1966 as a film by French writer / director François Truffaut, the new version is produced by HBO and is set in the future in Cleveland.
Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) is a rig-fit fireman, trained military-like within an inch of his life by his ruthless Fire Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon).
Civilisation reeks of big brother-like controlling. A Google Home-like device, known as Yuxie assists with Montag’s every domestic whim, including reminding him to take his daily-dose of eye-drops, but monitors his every move. City towers which double as giant video billboards remind citizens if they “See something, say something.”
The fire department, which makes celebrities of its force, has social media followers who watch them Live in action via camera. But Bradbury’s key concept in his work ensures that instead of the firemen extinguishing fires, they start them, buy burning books which are full of political ideas, anarchy, propaganda and ‘anti-social’ material.
Underground novels by Hemmingway, Kafka, Melville, Swift, Oscar Wilde, and even Mein Kampf and Harry Potter are considered “graffiti” and burned, to ensure “we must be made equal by the fire.” As a result, history is rewritten and fake news abounds.
But at one fire raid Montag encounters an “Eel”, a rebel harbouring a secret library, who self-immolates with books strapped to her body like a suicide bomber. After Montag steals a book for secret investigation, he encounters the Eel network and the alluring Clarisse McClellan (Sofia Boutella).
Montag soon finds himself caught in the crossfire, with his doubts and emotions wrapped up in Clarisse, and his training and servitude to Captain Beatty. There are also flashbacks to him as a young boy with his father, to a time of love, imagination and hope.
Jordan has all the muscle needed for this action film under director Ramin Bahrani and plenty of charisma. But this detour gets caught up in uncontrolled testosterone at the expense of its inherent message. As a reinvention it isn’t clear why the firemen are just that -all men- with Jordan sometimes feeling like a sole African-American in a sea of angry white men.
Shannon may be effective as the villain of the piece, if not particularly a villain we love to hate. The Eels, meanwhile, spend too much time in a hypnotic-like state reminiscent of early Leftovers episodes. If reading books makes one this dull and lifeless, pass me the matches now.
As it builds to an unsatisfying burning crescendo, never really addressing the utopia it seeks, it all feels like the journey has not been worth the destination. Perhaps we should put this one down as a vanity project, given Jordan is an executive producer.
Try watching the original film or grab some popcorn and a DVD of The Towering Inferno.
Fahrenheit 451 airs 9:30pm Monday on Showcase.