Film Review: Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve

Never has escaping a giant sand worm been less interesting

“Today’s mega-Audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what is not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.”

David Foster Wallace

I’m currently reading “Everything, everywhere, all the time”, Stuart Jeffries’s fun pop-culture polemic about how post-modernism has taken over both the world and our souls. With excellent timing, I have recently seen the Dune remake, which, in its spectacle and emptiness, might have been made specifically to prove Jeffries’ point.

I’m usually wary of reimaginings, but Villeneuve’s belated Bladerunner sequel was not hated by people I respect. I went into the cinema expecting something visually striking, moody, and at least a bit more thoughtful than the usual modern day Hollywood fare.

What I got was a hot mess.

I have a soft spot for David Lynch’s 1984 attempt at Dune, even though it was a failure at the box office. The hope that this would be the next Star Wars seemed hopelessly misplaced, as we were presented with garish sets and costume, excessively complicated galactic politics, and a scantily clad Sting.

Villeneuve’s Dune tones down the colour palette but is unexpectedly loyal to the Lynch interpretation. Before the film started there was a trailer for the latest instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, permanently eating and referencing itself in the finest postmodern tradition.

I was not expecting the feature film to also be a text about a text about a text. Parts of this were almost a love letter to Lynch’s creations, but with the humour and the visual inventiveness turned to -11. Yes: this is a neo-biblical space opera about chosen ones, vast landscapes, and intergalactic intrigue. But did it have to be so empty?

In Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation [1981], the classic postmodern text, we learn about the desert of the real.

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory . . . It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.

The CGI desert of the remade Duneseems almost a parody of the above. As the film’s boring royals buzz above in poorly rendered insectoid helicopters, the computerised Arrakis sands below are more brazenly fake than any of Hollywood’s 1950s epics.

This film, if anything, is an anti-epic. It shrinks the sprawling, ludicrous multi-worlds and factions of the novel (and the Lynch adaptation) into three planets and some brick-like spacecraft. There’s even some awkward attempts at the novel’s political allegory: the Fremen are announced, glibly, with Arabic-sounding music; hey, did you guys ever hear of the war in Iraq?

But this film is most trite in its reimaginings of Lynch’s most striking scenes. Paul, the Skywalker / Jesus / messiah character, is played here by a plank of wood. In the reimagined “stick your hand in this box, it’s probably fine” scene literally nothing happens. Anticlimax piles upon anticlimax.

What was Villeneuve’s intention here? Was he making fun of the Lynch interpretation? Was it a nod to it, like how the JJ Abrams Star Trek remakes depend on nostalgia? How do postmodern references even work when the film you’re nodding to was a notable bomb?

At one point, a character makes what passes for a joke. It isn’t a very good one, but the audience laughs, out of relief. Behind me, a guy has been on his phone since the start.

The only mercy of this film is it is only two hours or so. As the narrative peters out into some dull wanderings and a knife fight with all the gravitas of a brawl outside Grantham Wetherspoons, we are reminded, with horror, that this is only the beginning.

This is Dune: the remake, I. Presumably the intention is to make a II and III. And perhaps a prequel, where we see the giant sand worms when they’re just starting out.

One more generous interpretation of postmodernism is that it is freedom. But as Jeffries points out when considering our new masters the algorithms of Netflix: ‘the Frankfurt School thinkers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment, we have only ‘the freedom to choose what was always the same”’.

Dune is exactly this. In capitalist realism, we can imagine anything we like, so long as it doesn’t challenge the dominant worldview. This film is culture for pseuds, saying nothing, signifying nothing; it’s a parody of what art is supposed to be. At least the marvel films wear their cultural imperialism openly on their tshirts; this, instead, aims higher and finds only nothingness.

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