Proving you can't judge a book -- or movie -- by its cover, "Fahrenheit 451" turns out to be considerably less than the sum of its parts. Featuring the tantalizing tandem of Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon, this HBO movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel grinds along sluggishly, eclipsed by similar visions ("The Handmaid's Tale," anyone?) and becoming one of those films that, alas, looked better on paper.
Published in the early 1950s, and previously turned into a 1966 movie directed by Francois Truffaut, "Fahrenheit" is seemingly helped by technological advancements that have made its futuristic world less fantastic, and thus more disquieting. Yet the notion of "firemen" whose job is to burn books and stamp out learning doesn't ignite in the way that director/co-writer Ramin Bahrani hoped, or carry the level of real-world relevance to which it clearly aspires.
Jordan's Montag is, initially, a true believer in his authoritarian mission. He's destined for a promotion by his boss, Captain Beatty (Shannon), who warns him that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," alluding to the threat of allowing all that book learning to "burst forth like mosquitos, carrying malaria."
Montag's eyes are opened, however, by his encounter with Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), who arouses his conscience, introducing him to books and an underground society devoted to disseminating them.
It's a slow burn, pardon the expression, from Montag's gradual awakening to his break from the comfortable if destructive life he's known, especially since the challenge he faces -- as presented here -- appears so overwhelming.
There remains something sobering in Bradbury's tale about leveraging ignorance as a kind of weapon, a means of keeping the masses manageable and docile. But a movie like "Fahrenheit 451" doesn't exist in a vacuum, and while Jordan couldn't be a whole lot hotter coming off "Creed" and "Black Panther" -- and Shannon, as always, proves intense in a villainous role -- there's been plenty of more compelling science fiction films in this vein over the last half-century.
HBO is selective about its original movies, operating within an enviable realm that allows the network to explore provocative concepts that fall between the demands of theatrical blockbusters and the financial limitations associated with independent film.
Combining cerebral sci-fi with movie-star leads, this handsome production would appear an ideal fit for that mandate. For whatever reason, though, "Fahrenheit 451" doesn't deliver the necessary spark, despite all the ways that the filmmakers would like you to read between the lines.
"Fahrenheit 451" premieres May 19 at 8 p.m. on HBO.