The critics may not be crazy about this 2018 version of Ray Bradbury's epic, dystopian story, but that shouldn't stop you from enjoying this high tech, darker version of the film version directed by Ramin Bahrani and starring Michael B. Jordan as Montag, the conflicted fireman who starts fires (instead of putting them out) in an official capacity.
The film is set in a futuristic society where deep reading and critical thinking skills are criminal. All books are banned except for emoji versions of the Bible, Moby Dick, and To The Lighthouse. The job of the Cleveland Fire Department (that's right-Cleveland as in Ohio), is to search and destroy any paper or electronic manifestation of any other book, work of art or sheet music. And the hunt is always broadcast around the world, live on social media and the official news via the global Internet platform called the "9" as in, perhaps, the Temptations classic song, Cloud Nine ? It's not such a far stretch since the theme of the song is escapism through drugs and that's exactly what the 9 offers in this film-constant diversion and the easy ability to offer eyedrops that serve as a vehicle for mood altering drugs. Think YouTube and Amazon on steroids combined and you get the picture.
Montag is a media sensation and the protegee of Captain John Beatty, played by Michael Shannon, who befriended him when he was the son of an "eel" (outlaw book readers and hoarders) caught up himself in one of these book burning raids. Montag, because of the drugs and conditioning, has a vague, dream-like memory of his early life and Beatty makes him his favorite, targeting him as his replacement for leader of the Fire Department when he retires.
All is going well in Montag's mindless career of violence sanctioned by the State in the name of democracy. At one point, Beatty heartily proclaims, "We are not born equal so we must be made equal by the fire!" Fireman Montag lives to burn and he drives the kerosene truck to crime scenes with hearty bravado, leading his team on with raucous choruses of the official fight-the-eels song, "Salamander burn, salamander burn, hoorah!"
However, when on a routine raid, Montag watches an old woman eel choose to go down in flames with her books rather than surrender and to have her identity wiped with a device that erases fingerprints, the fireman begins a long, torturing journey with his conscience. Enter Clarisse, played by Sofia Boutella, as the hapless eel informant who is constantly pressured, sexually manipulated and watched by Captain Beatty.
Montag follows her one day into the outskirts of the city, known as a black hole--a place where the 9 can't reach. No cell phone service. No Internet. No electronic media of any type. The black holes are hiding places for the eels and the Fire Department rarely goes into them because of the technology block and distance away from civilization. But Montag starts to visit Clarisse regularly there and they soon become emotionally involved. Tender scenes showing them close and reading books together with Clarisse acting as teacher offer a moving contrast to the violence of Montag's life up until this point.
Montag eventually joins the resistance fully and helps the eels with their plans to disseminate the Omni DNA virus that contains all the literature, film, art and media ever created into a world dead of independent thinking. But in order to be fully trusted by the eels, he has to prove himself by killing a fellow captured fireman. As one of them says to him, "Revolution is not a dinner party."
Purists will claim that too much of Bradbury's original story line has been altered, especially the ending, but the central theme rings just as true, and more ominous than ever, in this modern rendition of a future that we are already living in. One aged journalist eel who is captured in the film explains, "People didn't bother to read and to think about the thousands and thousands of words in an article anymore-they just read the headlines." Are we not already at that point with the world of identity politics in which we have immersed ourselves in? Haven't we shut out opposing viewpoints on our Twitter or Facebook feeds and refuse to acknowledge a world of alternative possibilities to our media fed opinion? Indeed, as Beatty rightfully explains at one point, "We demanded a world like this." Perhaps the Information Age has become too much for us to bear. Yet there's still enough enjoyable action and violence in this excellent screenplay for those of us who are too tired to think.
But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge--Daniel 12:4