Cannes 2018: Ramin Bahrani's 'Fahrenheit 451' is Campy But Important
by Alex Billington
May 13, 2018
"We are not born equal. We must be made equal by the fire, and then we're happy." There's a reason why they've made a new Fahrenheit 451 movie in 2018 - because the world it depicts is a perfectly accurate representation of the society we live in today. The very prescient concept of Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel "Fahrenheit 451" is: to prevent any unhappiness, we must rid the world of alternative opinions and artistic expression and free thinking. To make sure we are all happy, all we have to do is pretend like everyone is equal and not let anyone tell us the truth - and this is exactly what is happening all over the world. They don't want you to know the truth about racism and inequality and sexuality and greed, and we manufacture a fake world of happiness in turn. What happens when we finally learn the truth? We must burn it all down.
This new Fahrenheit 451 is adapted by filmmaker Ramin Bahrani (of Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, At Any Price, 99 Homes), one of my favorite low-key filmmakers who has been building an outstanding filmography over the years. His movie is, admittedly, a bit campy and heavy-handed, and surface-level in its presentation of all the essential concepts an ideas. But, even though this is the case, it's still a vitally important film and I don't feel it's necessary to be overly harsh towards it. The film does not fit at the Cannes Film Festival at all, where it premiered this week, but that doesn't mean it deserves to be over-critized and ignored because it's not some perfect, deep, intensely complex work of art. It's entertainment, cheesy entertainment, but good, hearty entertainment that teaches us valuable lessons and reminds us how important free thought really is.
Bahrani's Fahrenheit 451 is basically a "Black Mirror" version of Fahrenheit 451 for the new generation. The world he crafts that it's set in is a perfectly dystopian, scary version of what we're currently living in - where live broadcasts, emojis, and chat streams rule everything. No one reads books, and no one needs to, because emoji versions of the only three books that matter are available online. The government lies to us about history (Benjamin Franklin created the first book-burning "fire department"), and tells us that free thinking and reading and wanting to be anything but perfectly happy is bad, bad, bad. This world reminds me of the "Black Mirror" episode "Nosedive". If you think this isn't already happening, it is, and that should be a wake up call to every single person who watches - even if you aren't a big social media person, we're all becoming addicted & integrated into this kind of over-simplified, dull world of +100, like/love this, frownie-face that.
In this movie, Michael B. Jordan plays Master Trooper Guy Montag, and Michael Shannon his boss, Captain Beatty. Both work for the fire department, tracking down rogue books and chasing "Eels" who are free-thinkers and book lovers, rejecting the manufactured society the government has blanketed the nation with. They're job is to burn it all and get rid of this debauchery. But it is Guy who, slowly but surely, begins to break down and realize there is more than he has been taught and told. All it takes is reading a few lines of book, and meeting another "Eel" who shows him that they're not as bad as the system has brainwashed everyone to believe. Eventually he learns there's a slim but hopeful chance to change things forever, and it escalates very quickly. The movie has some very cheesy dialogue, and most if it is surface-level concepts, but the filmmaking is strong enough for it to be engaging and entertaining. And hopefully it sticks in your mind.
Jordan and Shannon both give strong performances in the lead roles, but it's not their best work. Montag does feel convincing enough in his mental breakdown, but it's subtle and more physical, which makes sense for such a brawny actor as Michael B. Jordan. Algerian actress Sofia Boutella as the "Eel" named Clarisse he meets is a warm presence, but nowhere near as deep as her character could've and should've been. It's going to, unfortunately, be easy to criticize this film and dismiss it as lowly work and not worth anyone's time, for multiple reasons. I agree it's not perfect, far from it, and yet I still enjoyed it and found myself deeply connected to it - mostly the message more than the characters. And I worry that it will be dismissed when it doesn't deserve to be, especially as a flawed adaptation of a brilliant novel. Aren't these flaws exactly what make each and every one of us unique, and can't we learn to see past them to find the truth beneath?
Ray Bradbury's novel was profound when it was first published in 1953, and it still remains profound today, connecting eerily and frighteningly to what is developing in our societies today. Maybe it was a cautionary tale, maybe it was prophecy, maybe both. Bahrani's movie takes this connection to today even further, and although it's easy to see what he's trying to say and connect the dots, this doesn't make the message and the implications any less important and impactful. I just hope we can take this lesson to heart and see what he's getting at here. Bahrani doesn't hold back, but doesn't beat us over the head, with how easy it is to live in a society sucked into "happiness" as the only emotion that matters, and intellecualism as a dangerous weapon that must be abolished. Give this movie a chance to show you how vitally important it is to fight against this.
Alex's Cannes 2018 Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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