The monochrome look of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune suggests a sullen view of the world and the future. If you expect a sensual, kinetic, visually exciting movie version of Frank Herbert’s renowned 1965 epic sci-fi novel, be prepared for a presentation of global malaise instead. Villeneuve adapts Herbert’s quasi-religious parable as a study on tribal war between societies on four distant planets — a struggle over the manufacture of the spice named “Mélange” (an empowering, hallucinogenic drug) and the prophesized rise of a messiah, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). Villeneuve makes this an unmistakable allegory about cross-cultural conflict between the West and the Middle East.
David Lynch already did heavy lifting for Villeneuve in a 1984 version of Dune, a first attempt at clarifying Herbert’s portentous plot. When young Atreides travels to the spice planet Arrakis, antagonism between the House of Atreides and the Harkonnens (nobles versus reprobates), Lynch’s oddball vision got jumbled in the convoluted narrative. His genre experimentation failed to pass art-school surrealism for mythic, otherworldly sci-fi and was often risible.
But Villeneuve streamlines style, mood, and narrative, sometimes echoing Lynch’s play with dreams, time lapses, and visual dissolves. There’s more clarity here about Atreides’s family tree and his destiny with the Fremen (natives of Arrakis whose intake of the spice turns their eyes blue) and his fated romance with Fremen concubine Chani (Zendaya). The threat of imperialism comes later.
Villeneuve bases the film’s look on the desert sands of Herbert’s imagined planet. It’s more than coincidence that the brown-on-beige-on-gray desert and black, craggy mountains resemble Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. Herbert’s outer-space, intergalactic pretext — set in the year 10191 — evokes current anxiety. That was also the subject of Villeneuve’s best film, Incendies (2011), about the disasters of ancient war stretched across continents, giving birth to future shame and political strife that affects families for generations. Incendies contemporized everything that Greek tragedy warned us about, and now Villeneuve’s fascination with mankind’s cruelty becomes the message of Dune’s claptrap.
Of course this approach is humorless. So were the previous sci-fi movies, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, that won Villeneuve a following made up of the same juveniles who had ignored Incendies. They’ll be settling for a drab sci-fi adventure movie that pretends profundity even though it doesn’t get the fun things right. Lynch, in spite of late-20th-century technology, still managed to make Paul’s command of the enormous Arrakis sandworms kinda awesome (harpooned like Moby-Dick and resembling a Ray Harryhausen circus creature ridden through the desert). But in Villeneuve’s extravaganza, the sandworms look like a $300-million version of Tremors.
Along with the digital F/X (notably Paul’s protective body shield), Villeneuve’s politics are also updated. Dune’s multiracial political correctness broadcasts globalist condescension, but no better than Cloud Atlas or The Matrix did. This otherworldly sci-fi agitprop exoticizes Islam. Religious differences are vaguely represented by the fight over spice-consciousness, and you know which side progressive Hollywood is on. Villeneuve capitalizes on Herbert’s already unfortunate evocation of the Crusades and adds recent examples of ethnic-cleansing genocide. The Fremen cry, “Who will our next oppressor be?” Yet their fears are trivialized and contradicted when white Paul defeats the black Fremen Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), Black Panther–style. (“When you take a life, you take your own.”)
Thinking viewers can’t help but associate this sci-fi religiosity with contemporary political outrage. It doesn’t help that Chalamet represents the West at its entitled worst; he makes an obnoxious, petulant messiah. (Zendaya, Hollywood’s token of the moment, triggers the same aversion.)
Chances are that Villeneuve’s undemanding, Marvel-bred fans will not recognize Dune’s political and moral echoes: An Apocalypse Now reference indicts Western military folly while allusions to Bedouin superiority suggest the BDS-movement version of Lawrence of Arabia that Edward Said always wanted.
But if naïve sci-fi geeks prefer to look at movies distinct from the world around them, they’re doomed to miss that Villeneuve neglects the sense of tragedy that made Incendies morally powerful and gave weight to the best parts of Prisoners. They’ll deserve the enervating, nearly three-hour running time and the relentless bleakness of a virtue-signaling wannabe blockbuster. As Zendaya promises Paul, “it’s only the beginning.”
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