Sunday, March 10, 2024

May thy knife chip and shatter


Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by John Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve (based on Dune by Frank Herbert)

Spoilers: it's still just Dune, bros

So one thing that Dune: Part Two accomplishes, which might be the most important thing though I don't entirely mean this in a backhanded way, is that I probably like 2021's Dune (or Dune Colon Part One) better now for having seen its "sequel," in truth what feels more like one single (very) long film's completion of the task of adapting the classic Frank Herbert novel that I still haven't read.  This is because, of course, that if I ever rewatch Dune: Part One, it will now come off much less as a story-free art installation on the subject of the planet Arrakis, interested principally in communicating how big and featurelessly imposing Patrice Vermette's production design (and, by extension, its sense of its universe's own history) is, and at least slightly more like the first not-quite-half of a story.  I mean, sure, Dune: Part One had a plot, it had fully two and a half hours of plotand I hope you recall those two and a half hours well, because Dune: Part Two assumes you have them memorizedall of which was spent putting exiled space nobleman Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) into a position to be adopted into a Fremen band led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem), and at some unspecified point in the future, after a period of occultation and learning their ways, become their Mahdi.  But it has, pretty objectively, been left up to Dune: Part Two to finally retroactively impose any story upon that set-up, involving Paul's reluctant bid for destiny, his mother Jessica's (Rebecca Ferguson's) active role in making that his only possible destiny, and the Fremen's cultural shift around the emergence of their messianic figure in the form of their former oppressor's scion, a seismic change tensely navigated by Paul's Fremen lover Chani (Zendaya) while they escalate their liberation war into a holy war against their resurgent, even worse Harkonnen oppressors.

Or maybe that is only more plot, but now it coheres into a plot that feels more satisfyingly akin to a narrative, rather than just some ideas for a narrative that, as far as they knew in 2021, may or may not have ever gotten finished.  As you've probably gleaned from the way I've talked about it in the above paragraph, even if you didn't already know, I was not amongst those who hailed Dune: Part One (a corporate science fiction blockbuster based on well-known IP, but this one's different for some reason) as the savior of cinematic spectacle, if not cinema entire; and I still find it largely impossible to understand how a segment of Dune: Part One's audience reached the conclusion that it was.  (I guess it's a pretty large or at least influential segment, even so: Part Two doubled Part One's opening weekend take, and whatever I may say, I don't begrudge what's shaping up to be a very notable business success.)

Part Two, in fact, does come close to making me feel how they must have felt back in 2021, not for all of its running timea truly prodigious 165 minutesbut there's a big stretch in the middle of those 165 minutes, where two very big, very great scenes nearly manage to adjoin (there's an interlude between, but it is, after all, a big movie with lots of scenes), and this stretch truly does live up to the Duneheads' promises about it embodying "The Movies" as some holy concept.  Those scenes, though I bet you could guess which ones I mean, are, respectively, Paul's first ride on a sandworm and our trip to Giedi Prime to make the acquaintance of na-Baron Fayd-Rautha (Austin Butler), younger brother to the Harkonnens' failed governor of Arrakis, Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), and hence the other nephew of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), soon raised up to assume his elder brother's responsibilities.

Conceived as rhyming setpieces in their wayboth are about the rituals that climax the tutelage of young leaders in their respective societiesthey represent the most overpowering and appealing currents that director and co-writer Denis Villeneuve has brought to his pair of Dune adaptations, not just a feeling of incomprehensible scope in the visuals, though they have that, but a feeling of incomprehensible depth to the universe in which they take place in, a universe we've been abandoned in and are expected to make our own way through.  This might be more impressive, in a way, for Paul's sandworm ride, which could have wound up being domesticated iconography thanks to sandworms being the single most famous thing about Herbert's Dune, whereas thanks to the challenges inherent to placing a tiny little CGI man on the back of something larger than a blue whale, who nonetheless then commands it, it could feel entirely phony.  But Villeneuve pulls it off, simultaneously making it an almost-mystical experience before the majesty of a sandworm and a heroic accomplishment that only a Fedaykin could achieve, and the credible act of a human being, taught discrete steps that largely seem to make sense, except for the part where I'm unsure where the Fremen get the precision machinery to make their worm-summoners.  (This is a problem for my literalist mind with basically all Fremen technology, down to the most seemingly-insignificant items, like their plastic tubes, their shoes, or their linens.)  Well, it is a masterclass in shot scale, both in terms of editing and framing, alternating between a procedural approach to the individual desperate tasks that Paul must perform to ride his worm and the fullness of the spectacle, underlining that it is this legendary achievement that ingratiates him to the Fremen more than any other single act, which can only be even slightly understood from the distance of a mile.  There is a particular moment, Paul sprinting atop a dune, pushing him up to the top of the frame, to catch the sandworm, as the sandworm itself indifferently smashes through the dune that looms up over us like a mountain, and collapses the very thing Paul's running on, that I expect will live in my mind as the singular image of the movies in 2024.

And then we arrive upon the Harkonnen homeworld, and it's almost a literal negative image of Paul's ritual, both story-wise and in visual construction, positing a downright impossible world that feels like a hallucinationit's not that Dune: Part Two is a colorful movie by any outside metric, but it somehow feels more colorful after we leave this planet where the sunlight itself is evil, such that it cannot refract in color and bleaches everything into an abrasive, innovative black-and-white, and necessitates, for the celebration we're attending upon Giedi Prime, fireworks that explode like black ink blots across a bone-white sky.  (And if it's less perfectly-built than Paul's triumph, it's because the takes that Villeneuve's using to make it clear that it is because of the sunlight, and not just because we've arrived upon an unaccountable black-and-white sequence filmed with infrared-sensitive cameras to give it an even more alienating feel, aren't quite long enough, nor have enough of a transition zone, to burn this cognitively-assaultive and visually-uncomfortable concept into your soul.)  Meanwhile, unlike the sacredness of Paul's test, the actual narrative content of Fayd's sequence is space operatic camp (albeit distinct from Lynch's camp in his go at Dune), a gladiatorial battle amidst some smoothed-out cod-Giger design that pits him against some of the less-important surviving Atreides retainers, and, along with some casual murders as pure aperitif, it efficiently but vividly establishes the villainous charisma we're dealing with.  (It also, for the first time in this film franchise, gives Vladimir Harkonnen a touch of human personality instead of just blank, voidlike evil, in that his birthday gift to Fayd was to try to get his nephew killed, and Fayd, true to his archetype, is stoked.)  This is delivered with disorientations beyond even the black-and-white or the purity of the malevolence, like the discomfiting forms of the ebon harlequins who manage the gladiatorial arena, or Fayd expressing his gratitude for his gift, in apparent conformity with his culture, by making out with his uncle.  (Needed some tongue, though: give me a-li-en.)

Fayd's big movie-within-the-movie is bookended with Bene Gesserit material that gets Lea Seydoux pregnant and that feels like a pointless over-texturization of the plot (maybe the point is Dune Messiah, I have no idea), and even then, it's the kind of dog's-ears you don't necessarily mind with such massive world-building; but if I've gone on so much about two sequences that occupy at most forty-five minutes, and those scenes are, I believe, in the first half of a 165-minute movie, is that... actually a good thing?  It's not, probably, for the best, but a lot of it is just that I don't know what else to add to a discussion of Dune: Part Two that I didn't already say in my discussion of Dune: Part One, and in that first discussion I probably ran through all of the complimentary ways I had to a describe a magisterial, repetitive, beige movie, especially considering that this one is repeating its magisterial, repetitive, beige previous installment in most every way, except for the fact that it's gotten on with the plot.

Re-reading that prior review, this goes down even to detailed criticisms, like how Part Two also starts running out of gas twenty minutes before it ends (which is a bigger problem here, because this has an actual climax, but at some point we have to start wondering if it keeps being interesting, on an action film level, for nearly every major dramatic turning point in this science fiction story to be effected by way of another fucking knife fight), or my general complaints about broader-scale warfare in Villeneuve's conception of Dune, which might not even be addressable complaints because they're the same as Herbert's conception of Dune, or Villeneuve's apparently ideological resistance to putting any psychedelia in a story that revolves around a substance that is, inter alia, a psychedelic drug.  (Accordingly, Paul's clairvoyant visions are extremely brief and lacking in elaborate visuals when they're shown at allhe more often simply describes them in dialogue.  The most psychedelic thing on offer here is Jessica's conversations with her unborn child, inasmuch as we get close-ups of the latter, in her gross embryonic state; I will concede this ain't nothing.)  The strengths are much the same, too: besides those acknowledged, relating to scale and scope, it's Greg Fraser's photography (which is even better this time, with somewhat more chances for starkly-interesting lighting schemes in the interiors and hot orangey-reds in Arrakis's desert), and it's Hans Zimmer's score (which does its finest work, like every other department head contribution, on Giedi Prime, with the cod-Arabic strains of the score recast into something demoniac, like orientalist riffs performed with a door whose hinges haven't been oiled in a century), and it's the sound design that I reckon is like watching Earthquake or Rollercoaster in Sensurround.  And while I would not call the movie boring, I could get boring talking about it, veering off into picking at the fundamental implausibilities of the world-building ("say, do you think the Fremen would be willing to trade spice harvesting concessions for... water?").  Ultimately, though, it's almost a problem that the Dunes can be almost as long as the Star Wars Trilogy (5 hours and 20 minutes vs. 6 hours and 17 minutes, anyway, so not that far off) and not feel like they've done or shown us as much as any single one of the Star Wars Trilogy's constituent entries.

Almost: that's the ethos of Villeneuve's Dunes and you do have to take it as you find it.  But when that comes to story, that means it can feel inutterably distant, in bad ways as well as good.  It's hard to even say what Dune is "about" from the films: it has themes, but so glancingly that you can wonder at how you can watch a movie with this much Islamic, specifically Arab influence and barely feel it has anything to do with anything, in March 2024.  It kind of loses its actors: it's almost a factually true statement to say that Butler's is the only great performance, because it's the only one that can be, as Fayd is an attack from a different kind of movie that can support great performances; Ferguson manages a certain hold early on, but as much because I'm a pre-existing Ferguson superfan and because she was the best thing in Dune: Part One, and she's relegated to pretty much the single narrow groove of "Reverend Mother" for the latter two-thirds of this film; Chalamet is lifeless, as Chalamet almost always is, and further hemmed-in by the stuffy dialogue (maybe it's just because he's already here as Chalamet's opposite number, but the movie continually makes you think about the alternate universe where Butler plays Paul, that actually manages the transition between diffidence and messianic charisma the role requires); Zendaya is giving the film's most useful performance, and I suppose for that reason its second-best.

This is despite being handed an almost-unplayable character that is (I understand) the one figure most heavily-reimagined from the book, in that this Chani is openly contemptuous of the messianic portent attributed to Paul and terrified of the prospect that he will rise to leadership, which is a nice conflict for an actor to have, but presents an incredibly difficult psychological challenge for an actor playing the woman fucking the guy she also thinks might be a Space Hitler.  Zendaya and Villeneuve do absolutely nothing with this psychology, to be clear, but it does vastly more work on the film's behalf than any of the other performances, more-or-less single-handedly giving Dune: Part Two any human dimension at all by steering its faceless implacability into a story of the man who surrendered the human part of himself to the tide of history.  It's something that I think Zendaya has on her radar the entire time, but which Villeneuve leaves mostly to the blocking around Chani and Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh, doing noticeably decent work with her brittle dialogue, albeit mostly being just a fun object to hang Byzantine fetish costumes on), which winds up more interesting than the film's eighth or ninth knife fight, and a very well-chosen final shot.

What this amounts to otherwise is the curious and hard-to-describe sensation of a Bible film that's based on Dune, which is to say a legend told with utmost respect for its inherent value, and the expectation of it being received with the appropriate votive purpose by the faithful, as a pageantlike recreation of how, for instance, their messiah entered the Southern haven through a crowd of thousands of onlookers who did not yet believe, but nevertheless felt the awe of his presence, whereupon he announced the arrival of His kingdom.  The distinction is that when we watch The Greatest Story Ever Told or The Ten Commandments, their legends have the benefit of being "real," in the sense that the billions of people who have believed them to be real across millennia inevitably give their renditions of those legends undeniable emotional weight.  They can be in some fashion "superficial" in their irreducibility, and are even supposed to be, but Dune: Part Two can possess only the superficialities of religious significancenot by definition, perhaps, but in a treatment like this one, that absolutely and categorically rejects any obligation on its part to justify its significance to you.  I think you can see how there's just something off about a blockbuster popcorn movie that's actually an art film, where the experiment it's conducting is so intellectual it barely manages to feel like it's anything at all.  Yet it's absolutely fascinating, even so, this attempt at the pomp of a religious epic based not on religion but instead on a goofy science fiction book, which does, to its credit, achieve the sensation of an artifact from some alien culture where its significance could be assumed.  So I still want to insist that this is a cool thing for a movie to do; that the wrongness of it is, indeed, what makes it different and interesting, even if by no means do I love it, nor, in its entirety, even like it as much it wants me to.

Score: 7/10


  1. I have to agree that, when ranking the ‘He’s so hot right now!’ young actors in this film, Mr Butler definitely takes the crown: I still feel that Mr Chalamet does a sound job as a young aristocrat hoping to be a decent young man, but doomed to make History instead.

    On a related note, it’s intriguing to watch this film’s climax and see the Triumph of House Atreides framed in a way that suggests THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK rather than RETURN OF THE JEDI: I’m not sure I can think of a cinematic Space Opera other than DUNE (Part II) where Our Hero’s victory is played for Tragedy, at least not off the top of my head.

    Oh, and for some reason Mr Javier Bardem really, really reminded me of the Great Topol in this film - and I mean that as High Praise (One would add a word of praise for the ever-excellent Ms. Ferguson, but by this point we should all love and esteem her, so such praise should be absolutely redundant.

    LOVE HER (Also, when she’s playing the Baddie, Fear Her).

    1. I wonder if I'll ever get a chance to see Masters of the Air. It's kind of made for me, as someone who was at one point an amateur historian of air war, remains a Spielberg fanboy, and is presently pretty into Hansel, I mean Butler. Chalamet is okay enough, he has some screen presence. Zendaya usually doesn't, which is why I was surprised and delighted she developed some here.

      I think Empire is what they're going for, but I just don't feel the tragedy of Paul's jihad. (As for the very-much Empire plot twist, that is some big, Spaceballs-esque "and what does that make us?" despite it being pitched as something that ought to make us reevaluate things.) I just don't know, besides Zendaya being angry, why Paul is worse or more destructive than the Empire. My understanding is that they could've had some future visions--I think they're in the book--that really elaborate on this.

      Ferguson's always great, and she's doing as much as possible here, I just wish there was more plot attached to being Reverend Mother and/or the gestator of apparent doom.

    2. (Not the same anonymous as the guy above)

      I don’t think the implication is that Paul’s empire would necessarily be “evil”, just that the road to create it would require a lot of war and bloodshed.

    3. Well, maybe not so much eeeeevil, but destructive of the order of things and generally frightening to a skeptical, small-c conservative like Chani--he's a less a Space Hitler than Space Abu Bakr (why, his first wife also got dropped when she denied the faith), but certainly if I were some random Arab in the early 7th century and you told me what we were about to do, I'd think you were nuts. Even so, it's unclear whether this means triumph or disaster or both for our narrative focus, the Fremen, though I'd assume the many, many subsequent Dune books (irrespective of whether they're well-liked) posit some Fitna or other for the sake of a story to tell.

      Wait, is that why his sister is named "Alia"

    4. (That said, the impersonality of the political stakes is why I do like that it narrows things down to a pretty human set of stakes at the end.)

    5. There is that like about “millions starving” or something, though it is unclear about whether that’s specifically the Fremen.