Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021): Technics Over Essence

(Editors note: I have not seen this film, and do not intend to. I was not impressed with Villeneuve’s ‘Blade Runner’ sequel, and I hate the look of this film (a blander lifting of Lynch’s vision) and I am not impressed by cgi. But this review is suitably negative overall. — Brendan)

but The announcement of a new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune has been the subject of much anticipation for at least a couple of years. After it’s premier was delayed by roughly a year owing to COVID-19 related measures, it has been subject to near unanimous praise by critics in much of the mainstream press. This appears so far to have shaped the measure of public opinion, and subsequently box office returns.

It is a work that has in the past been deemed largely unfilmable and extremely hard to adapt, best exemplified by the portrayal of crazed Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abortive attempt to adapt the film to the big screen in Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013). Certain aesthetic and conceptual leftovers, reflected largely in set design and casting choices would ultimately lend themselves to the 1984 film version, directed by David Lynch and produced by the De Laurentiis film company.

I’ll make this clear, and this is no detriment; Villeneuve has most certainly succeeded in being able to adapt and implement elements from the novel into the film that failed to make it into Lynch’s version. As it is a scheduled “Part One”, covering the first half of the first novel of Herbert’s series, there is more narrative breathing space. Overall, Villeneuve’s adaptation is far less compacted, and two and half hours makes this a more “digestible” affair, at least as far as this may concern a normal, average filmgoer who sees little beyond titillation and entertainment.

Additionally, the concepts and set designs are impressive, as are the more “technological” special effects that involve scenes of battle, or the ornithopters. One can see on viewing Dune that this was quite an expensive affair, and there was a meticulous attention to detail. Set pieces convey a strong, foreboding atmosphere, and possess a techno-futurist bleakness and coldness that Villenueve conveyed on his previous science fiction films, Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival.

The score is provided by Hans Zimmer, who provides a soundtrack that is neoclassical but engaging modes and scales familiar to Middle Eastern music, which is clearly designed to fit a world abundant with Persian and Arabic linguistics, vocabulary and etymologies, not unlike a techno-dystopian Lawrence Of Arabia. A particular female vocal throughout evokes, even mimics the glossolalia wailing of Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard, the type made clear on pieces such as “The Host Of Seraphim”. Use of the Armenian wind instrument, the duduk is a pleasant touch.

This contrasts the 1984 soundtrack, in large part provided by AOR band Toto, along with the “Prophecy” theme which Brian Eno provided. Zimmer’s score is less memorable, less pronounced, more designed to fit the film like a glove than act as something where its motifs have the potential to stand out on its own merits, as have the scores of Vangelis for Blade Runner, or Basil Poledouris for Conan The Barbarian. It is not perfect, but works consistently throughout as a very strong “mood suite”. The clear work of an accomplished arranger, its movements, ebbs and flows are consistent with changes in tone and mood that accompany the moving images.

The real problems begin ultimately with the human presence of Villeneuve’s Dune, and this ultimately is the fatal, dismembering flaw that rips the guts and heart out of a project that has been structurally done with little margin for error. This is reflecting in the ideas that are clearly piercing through the narrative skeleton of this adaptation, manifested in the casting choices and the acting of many of the cast members.

The cultural tidal wave of wokeness looms heavier that one imagined it to over this new adaptation. The casting here is ethnically diverse. This alone will solicit those who praise this new instalment to like it on those factors alone, perhaps even to scoff at the “whiteness” of Lynch’s 1984 version. This sort of gradualism is comparable to how a feminist narrative is embedded into the narrative of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), but rendered implicit by a near constant surge of adrenaline porn.

The “social justice” message of woke capitalism is embedded similarly in this new take on Dune, albeit obscured by its atmosphere and genre. Though Frank Herbert’s narrative of the original novel was inspired by the geopolitics of the Middle East (i.e. the spice melange as a metaphor for oil), many of the concepts surrounding the Fremen and their “salvation” were inspired largely by the Islamic peoples of the Caucasus, their tribes and their revolts against the Russian Empire in the 1800’s, led by figures such as Imam Shamil, whose descendants today are still authentically fierce fighting men.

Whilst this is not to debate the “historical accuracy” of the interpretation of a fictional work, one should ask some questions about how “diversity” is portrayed in this film. Indeed, colonialism, subjugation and oppression of sorts do occur within the Dune universe. But if we are to interpret the historical peripheries of where Herbert drew much of his inspiration from, then surely the empires of the Russians, the Persians and the Ottomans, the latter two of whom would bring the less Western and “orientalist” touches to the narrative.

They would then form part of the dreaded power structure in the mindset of the “postcolonial” theorist mindset, to whom only European civilization is ever worth critiquing. It would serve to derail their interpretation of the story. The notion of British Empire being the Atreides expedition, and the “white saviour” types such as T.E. Lawrence being analogous to Paul Atreides would be just as much of a sideline to the lore that inspired the source material for the original novel.

If we are to go by Herbert’s apparent inspiration then the Fremen, noted for their blue eyes and whom were of fair appearance in Lynch’s version, would surely represent the captive peoples of the Caucasus and the Balkans; Circassians, Hellenes, Laz, Georgians, Dagestanis, Armenians, Slavs and many other ethnic groups who would have fallen under the peripheries of the Russian, Persian and Ottoman empires. The quotas in the new adaptation of Dune resemble far more what a contemporary “racial justice” advocacy group/think tank/lobby group adjacent to Hollywood and big business would want the film to look like.

What we have for Fremen in the movie is a ragtag assemblage of “oppressed people” who instead represent a globo-centric view of what “diverse” should mean, rather than the source material which inspired the author of the original work. But for liberal viewers and analysts who will appraise this, this is not the sort of diversity they have been spoonfed and conditioned to praise, and therefore unworthy of being given attention, again bearing no comparison to the “now”. All the more, rather than being a product of high fantasy and science fiction, none of the cast at any time appear evidently willing nor capable of throwing off a cultural sense of Pax Americana, regardless of their backgrounds and the “orientalist” aesthetics of the film.

As this is evidently connected to Hollywood and where big money currently lies, it is evident that a film like this could not be possibly made without compromising to demands that a “diverse” quota is engaged, or that clear tokenism goes beyond the implicit. Indeed, the character of Fremen planetologist Kynes, originally played by Swedish actor Max Von Sydow is replaced by a black female, played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster. The daughter of Kynes, Chani, soon to be concubine of Paul, is played by Zendaya, who is herself half African-American, half European American. Whilst the script does not differ from the book, it quite obvious that a mix of creative and corporate license is used to push a certain level of biopolitics that is generically the fare of much contemporary Hollywood cinema.

Again, whilst there is clearly room for ambiguities, this is clearly an incremental move which will make hyper-progressive types foam at the mouth and further use it as a means to vindicate why they ultimately believe this film is better, and will justify uniformly unquestioning praise that has been unloaded onto the movie by the mainstream press, cultural outlets, mass media and its “tastemakers” leading up to its premier. You were all simply told that this was a good film before you even decided that this was good.

As much as the narrative of this interpretation of Dune is supposed to critique an imperium, this is all the product of the imperium that is Hollywood, a system that tells you that you live in an impartial society, and that you are completely free, and you are not being nudged and hoodwinked to accept the ideas that proliferate and disseminate from it. All the while it “empowers” those who see themselves as a collectively “disenfranchised” mass whose resentment is used as a battering ram by large corporate bodies and conglomerates against healthy cultural and social instincts.

The adaptation of a work of fiction of course gives excuses for abstractions and concessions to be made to the same contemporary zeitgeist that has given us an all female Ghostbusters, and a bisexual Superman, as well as an ever increasingly fragile, more emasculated James Bond. The “heroic” narratives of such epics are being driven by people who seem to have little enthusiasm or interest in heroic outcomes, as is the case with much of the bread and circuses that comes from contemporary “superhero” cinema. Indeed, many actors in this movie were clearly chosen on the basis of their appearances in such genre films.

This also most certainly reflects the utter miscasting of the otherwise worthy Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, and the bro-dude meathead in chief Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, who delivers a completely tokenistic “ass kicking” fight sequence that was likely written in as a means to ensure that a highly expensive film project would be more likely to go beyond breaking even in the box office.

Yet this also sits alongside a strong sense of ennui and existential dread that permeates the film, and very misfitting performances which come across as so blatantly sterile that they give no power or soul to the film that it could otherwise deserve to have. The browbeaten and downbeat characteristics of some of the characters would have been more suitable for the contexts of Villeneuve’s previous films, as is showcased in slow burning, dark dramas such as Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015).

Indeed, the chief character, Paul Atreides is meant to be a boy who amidst uncertainty, overcomes doubt and questioning of his purpose, becoming a man and a ruler, a role that Kyle McLachlan played with aplomb. Timothee Chalamet by contrast sounds and looks like a socially anxious zoomer in desperate need of his next fix of Xanax and SSRI’s. His mother Jessica, played by Rebecca Ferguson lacks the feminine grace of Francesca Annis in Lynch’s version, and the psychic power she has over all forms of brute strength (being a Bene Gesserit) is rendered unconvincing.

Her “strong independent woman” role goes to the extent that she comes across as overbearing and browbeating towards that of her son Paul. Coupled with his whiny, nasally tone of voice, you have an overly mollycoddled lead whose performance makes one ask the question, “should I really be rooting for this person?” It may be observed that a “traditional” portrayal of these roles, as was seen in Lynch’s version are simply not a product of this time and therefore don’t belong to a contemporary adaptation. Various scenes that mimic Lynch’s version, such as the gom jabbar sequence and the use of the audial-neural “voice” conditioning to kill Paul and Jessica’s Sardaukar captors lack the same sense of conviction as the original did, subsequently.

Which brings on the topic of the Harkonnens. Whilst this first instalment omits the appearance of Feyd-Rautha, it portrays the evil of Vladimir and Rabban with cold, clinical sterility, and not in a good way. Stellan Skarsgard, no doubt a competent actor has none of the campy, wicked psychopathy that characterizes Kenneth MacMillan’s portrayal of the Baron, and performance wise comes across as a rehashing of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Whilst he is still brutal and violent, none of his perversion and pederastic predilections are on display. Indeed, the screen portrayal of Lynch’s Vladimir Harkonnen, as well as Herbert’s literary portrayal has been savaged in some quarters as blatant homophobia.

History gave us famous perverts such as Nero and Caligula, and even cultural, literary and philosophical movers and shapers such as De Sade, Freud and Foucault, yet to portray a fictional character in a negative light because their inclinations are an outcome of their innate wickedness is to offend a sacred cow within the contemporary cultural power structure. Even though Lynch’s 1984 version was marred by his lack of final cut and the conventionalism desired by the De Laurentiis company, this sign of society having since “moved on” renders it far too risqué to render the character as it once was now. You are not allowed to upset the alphabet people lobby, to do so makes you a bad person. Maybe the second instalment of the series will feature a gay or bisexual Paul, who is to know!!!

More generally, and not unlike many of Christopher Nolan’s later films, Villeneuve’s Dune just comes across as too clinically “perfect”, but in the way that a technically accomplished band such as Dream Theatre can play their instruments and play riffs and solos, yet ultimately give you a completely empty expression. Much praise has been given to how “overwhelmingly powerful” and “otherworldly” this is as a cinematic experience. It is comparable to a Tool fan telling you that the title track from “Lateralus” is the greatest thing ever made because “they used the Fibonacci sequence”.

For any good and hard work that has been put into this, it is clearly a case of technics over essence, and you will find much more genuinely clever “mindfuck” cinema coming from admittedly degenerate postmodernist film directors such as Gaspar Noe. Which is a shame, as this did have the potential to be a very strong piece of cinema. This analysis will likely be negatively received in many quarters, and would surely illicit bugman-centric responses akin to “can you not just enjoy the fucking film?”, but as a work of cinematic imagination the flawed romanticism of David Lynch’s version is vastly superior to Villeneuve’s take, which also suffers greatly from its sterile acting and ideological sleights of hand.

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