Dune: Part Two by Denis Villeneuve (dir) - review by James Wham

James Wham

Riddle of the Sands

Dune: Part Two

By

167 minutes
 

The great superpower of Dune is its prescience. In 1959, Frank Herbert walked the sand dunes of Florence, Oregon, and saw the future: aridity and riches, sand and spice. Strong coastal winds were pushing the dunes east, towards the city, and the US Department of Agriculture decided to intervene, planting sedge and beach grass to halt the sand’s advance. This battle for the environment captured Herbert’s imagination. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Herbert had been writing for local magazines and papers for twenty years. He intended to cover the dunes story as a journalist, even hiring a small aircraft to track their movements, but his research into deserts and desert cultures led elsewhere. He wrote a pair of stories that were serialised in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, then expanded them into something much greater: the nine-hundred-page epic Dune, published in 1965. Now one of the bestselling science fiction novels of all time, Dune is set on the desert planet of Arrakis, or Dune, where the great houses of Harkonnen and Atreides fight for control of ‘spice’ – a byproduct of giant sandworms which enables safe faster-than-light travel. The planet’s indigenous people, the Fremen, have meanwhile been forced into hiding.

The novel foreshadowed the oil embargoes of the 1970s, the rise in religious fundamentalism and terrorist violence, the dissolution of those ‘great houses’ we might call the Western and Eastern blocs and the desert wars of the 1990s and 2000s. It seems likely that these historical resonances have played a role in its long and busy afterlife, which encompasses twenty-two sequels (five by Herbert, seventeen by his son Brian and the science fiction author Kevin J Anderson), a failed 1974 adaptation by Alejandro Jodorowsky, a disavowed David Lynch film of 1984 and a television miniseries broadcast in 2000.

Dune: Part Two is the second instalment of Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation. The Harkonnens are led by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård) and operate from a monochrome metropolis on their heavily industrialised home planet. Where they once might have been seen as symbols of the Soviet empire (Herbert took the name ‘Härkönen’ from a phone book, thinking it sounded Soviet), in this film they signal a kind of capitalist excess built on slavery and sadism. Theirs is a patriarchal, pearly white ruling class; the baron himself is too fat to move.

In the first film, which adapts the first half of Herbert’s original novel, Baron Vladimir and the Emperor of the Known Universe (Christopher Walken) conspire to destroy House Atreides (coded as European via bullfights and bagpipes). They assassinate Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and slaughter his people, effectively ending the Atreides dynasty in a single night. Leto’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), and widow, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), are sent scrambling towards the desert, where they encounter the Fremen and win some favour – partly because of Jessica’s ‘weirding ways’, her witchlike powers, and partly because Paul exhibits signs of being the messianic Mahdi, or Lisan al Gaib. The film ends with him joining the Fremen while making eyes at one of their soldiers, a young woman named Chani (Zendaya). In the second film, we learn what the Fremen desire most: to free their planet from industrial extraction and make it a green paradise once more.

Herbert never intended his novels to provide a commentary on conflict in the Middle East or to critique our addiction to petrochemicals (spice notably doubles as a drug). He was more interested in the idea of ecological manipulation – that human intervention could alter those Oregon dunes for the better. That the Fremen are Arab-coded is incidental. Herbert read Lesley Blanch’s The Sabres of Paradise (1960) prior to writing Dune and apparently quite enjoyed its depiction of Russia’s wars in the Caucasus, cribbing from it names, objects and even phrases, including niche terms like ‘Chaksoba’ (a Caucasian language) and ‘kanly’ (a vendetta). In the novel, the Fremen wear ‘bourkas’, fear ‘Shaitan’ and talk of a ‘jihad’ (in the script, cowritten by Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts, the phrase ‘holy war’ is preferred). Herbert also read T E Lawrence’s war memoirs, and Paul much resembles the white saviour of the Bedouin.

Herbert was also prompted to reflect on the problems inherent in messianic thinking. As he wrote in a 1980 essay, ‘Heroes are painful. Superheroes are a catastrophe.’ The new film depicts Paul exploiting his own messianic status to ensure his and his mother’s survival among the Fremen. The cabal of psychic witches to which Jessica belongs has spread prophecies of what they call the Kwisatz Haderach, a super being intentionally bred through the careful manipulation of bloodlines. But none can be certain that Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach. He performs the many miracles foretold of the Mahdi, and with each one the Fremen break out in chanting: ‘Lisan al Gaib!’ These miracles are good fun and suit Villeneuve’s style of thoughtless spectacle well enough. (The entire film was shot using IMAX cameras, presumably to fit in more sand.) Paul first helps to destroy a spice harvester, then crosses the desert on his own. Later, he rides a sandworm – and all are impressed by the size of Paul’s worm.

The many raids on the Harkonnens make for happy times, and the portrayal of Paul living among the Fremen is one of the film’s great pleasures. The design of their culture – they form an egalitarian fraternity of brave desert ninjas – likely owes to Herbert’s own libertarian fantasies. With the desert planet Arrakis, Herbert imagines the world as inherently cruel, a near-uninhabitable environment full of dangers where only the fittest survive. In Villeneuve’s rendering, only the trace of religious fanaticism in Fremen culture comes in for censure. We are not invited to dwell on the barbarism of their rites – to become leader, you must kill the leader – because it is part of the film’s fantasy of power, which caters to both sides of the political spectrum: the Fremen are both a brutish warrior class for whom might is right and a revolutionary underclass hoping to overthrow their masters. Despite Paul’s philosophising in the desert, what wins out in Villeneuve’s vision is crudely emblematic: each film ends with a knife fight. Herbert called his story ‘coital’, but ‘phallic’ suits Villeneuve’s films better. They rely too much on scale.

Is there anything interesting to say about Villeneuve’s direction? Herbert’s son recently called Villeneuve’s two efforts ‘by far the best film interpretation’ of his father’s novel, but what he most likely meant by this is ‘faithful’. In his aborted adaptation, Jodorowsky made sweeping changes to the story presented in the book, which he claimed he never finished reading: at the end of his proposed twelve-hour film, Paul would be beheaded and immediately gain omnipotence, greening the planet and bringing peace to the universe. Villeneuve wouldn’t dare. There is nothing so audacious in his cinema. All the highlights of his filmmaking stem from mere competency: his is a literal approach to the words laid out on the page. Here is a big desert with big worms and big machines – see it all on the big screen. Hundred-million-dollar budgets pay for such simplicity.

But what does it cost to be innovative? The ‘weirding ways’ that make the novel interesting are at odds with Villeneuve’s unimaginative style. There are moments in these films – Oscar Isaac’s earnest delivery of the phrase ‘desert power’, the baron floating about like a helium balloon – that have provoked laughter among some audiences. When I think of the self-serious Villeneuve, it seems impossible to imagine him laughing. He used to make films about school shootings and immigration. Then he moved to Hollywood. Thanks to good-looking, thrill-heavy films like Sicario and Arrival, his name has become synonymous with Christopher Nolan’s among entry-level cinephiles who fancy him as a kind of messiah of modern filmmaking, where maximalism stands in for message. ‘I’m not interested in dialogue at all,’ Villeneuve said recently in an interview. ‘Pure image and sound, that is the power of cinema.’ Desert power, then: vast and empty spaces.

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