Cannes Review: 'Fahrenheit 451'

Tuesday, May 15, 2018 - 5:06am

Just five minutes into “Fahrenheit 451” it’s clear this isn’t Ray Bradbury’s world anymore. This world — somewhere in the near future after a “Second Civil War” — is as ruled by technology as it is by fire.  TV screens show a running feed called “The 9” and approved books (“The Bible” and “To The Lighthouse” make the cut) are uploaded onto a server for preservation, while their physical counterparts are burned.

I don’t want to be a stickler about adaptations. I get that a book and a movie require different things. But for a story about the preservation of narratives and ideas it seems unintentionally ironic to create an adaptation this liberal and extra-textual.

A clever adaptation could probably get away with these liberties. But “Fahrenheit 451” is so poorly written even a close translation would betray the book.  The script gives Michael B. Jordan (“Black Panther”) and Michael Shannon (“The Shape of Water”) — who lead as Montag and Beatty respectively — nothing to work with. So it’s hard to know where to place the blame for their clunky performances.

Every line of a dialogue is either exposition, the word “burn” or literary name-drops. The latter will feel familiar (despite lacking any David Foster Wallace) for anyone who has ever sat through an entry-level English class at the University. And the references they do make are so on the nose, in context it’s hard to tell if they’re from Dostoyevsky or a Quote of the Day calendar.

The one real, positive takeaway from the film is that I could watch two hours of Michael B. Jordan reading “Crime and Punishment” out loud. If that were all this movie was I would be writing a very different review. But, alas, here we are.

After the hundredth reminder that this is a story about books and fire and what happens when they meet, the plot begins to unravel in earnest. Clarisse (Sofia Boutella, "The Mummy," doing her best) has been recast as a love interest for Jordan’s Montag. She’s an informant for the Firemen, but also integral to the “eel” resistance. Her character arc might be the messiest in a truly messy plot. For a movie with only three characters, “Fahrenheit 451” makes very little effort to characterize them beyond the archetypes they represent: the good guy, the bad guy, the punk girl love interest. We know remarkably little about any of these characters — their motivations, desires, demons — at the end of the film. Just as we know remarkably little about the fate of their world.

There’s something akin to hope, in the form of sweeping shots of a landscape that was created by a CGI artist who has never seen Ohio, Michigan or Southern Canada. But that’s it. At this point in the film, we’ve come to expect this level of sloppiness. It’s a fittingly poor attempt at narrative ambiguity. But it’s still disappointing.

HBO films (like their cousins at Netflix) are infamously bad. But “Fahrenheit 451” is such a standout disappointment because it could have been good. With excellent source material and a powerhouse cast, the potential was there. If anything, “Fahrenheit 451” confirms that a movie starts on the page: A terrible script leaves the film with little potential for upward movement.