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Movie review: Storyline in 'Fahrenheit 451' feels rushed in film format

May 13, 2018 Updated: May 13, 2018 at 4:20 am
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Cast: Michael B. Jordan ("Black Panther," "Creed"), Michael Shannon ("Boardwalk Empire," "Nocturnal Animals"), Sofia Boutella ("The Mummy," "Kingsman: The Secret Service"), Dylan Taylor ("Covert Affairs," "Grey's Anatomy"), Lily Singh ("Bad Moms")

Airs: The film premieres Saturday on HBO

The premise: Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) is a "fireman" whose job is to burn books, a government mandate to achieve happiness and social harmony, but really to pacify its citizens. Most people stay home, happily interacting with screens, and get anything they need from an advanced AI personal assistant. But when Montag meets Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), his belief system begins to shift, and he realizes that what he's trusted for so long isn't the truth. "Fahrenheit 451" is based on the 1953 book of the same name by Ray Bradbury. Aside from starring, Michael B. Jordan is also an executive producer.

Highs: The dystopian world in the movie is just as disturbing as the novel, but with some significant differences. Bradbury's book was published 65 years ago, when McCarthyism was running rampant. This film has been updated to reflect modern times, for better and for worse.

This new Guy Montag is a social media star. Handsome and strong, Montag knows how to pump up the crowds that gather when he burns stacks of books or other materials that haven't been censored for content by The Ministry, the current authoritarian government. The Ministry monitors everything and edits what it considers "sensitive material," either destroying it or changing it to fit the government narrative.

Sure, you can read the Herman Melville classic "Moby Dick," but half of the words have been replaced by emojis. Don't worry, The Ministry knows what's best for you, best not to think too much. After all, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Montag is used as a conduit to deliver the seemingly harmless message: Be happy. And being happy couldn't be easier. Just stay home, take your meds, get lost staring into one of your many screens, and order whatever you need from Yuxie, an AI assistant that will do whatever you tell it but is spying on you too. If this sounds too familiar, that's intentional. The message is clear. We will lose our freedom if we give it away. At times, "Fahrenheit 451" is terrifying because it feels as relevant now as it did 65 years ago.

Lows: While the three leads' performances are excellent, particularly Michael Shannon as Captain Beatty, the cast of "Fahrenheit 451" gets shortchanged by the film format. Everything in the 100-minute movie feels rushed and will leave many viewers, particularly those unfamiliar with the book, scratching their heads. How can Montag, who's been trained to be a firefighter from a young age, doubt his mission and turn against people he's known for years? Without proper context, it doesn't make sense. If turned into at least a limited series, the consequences of Montag's actions would have had time to build and been given more weight.

Three characters' paths diverge significantly from those in the book. I don't wan't to get into spoiler territory, but one important character isn't in the movie at all. Why? Probably to save time.

Grade (B-): While quoting from Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," Michael Shannon's Captain Beatty reminds the audience how powerful perception is. The quote is lost on Montag but will resonate with viewers. While flawed, it's moments like this that allow the film version of "Fahrenheit 451" to channel Ray Bradbury's message.

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Gazette media columnist Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.

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