With 'Dune,' Denis Villeneuve has made Hollywood's definitive post-9/11 epic
A misguided military invasion of foreign lands. A brutal insurgency. Religious and tribal warfare. The beauty and brutality of the desert. A literal "Clash of Civilizations."
The new film adaptation of the 1965 novel Dune has been marketed and hailed as an epic film, shot in IMAX and designed as a feast for the senses. But beyond its visual grandeur, this is a film that also leans into the novel's sweeping, heady ideas. Author Frank Herbert had ecological, political and cultural crises on his mind when he crafted Dune in the early 1960s – and all those philosophical layers are why the novel was long considered a text too dense, inhospitable and metaphorical to film. Previous efforts have been made to questionable ends. (Example A: David Lynch.)
With the new 2021 edition, director Denis Villeneuve turns the novel's politics into riveting and undeniable cinema – its meditations on race, culture and colonialism transformed into a widescreen epic starring Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, the colonizing outsider, and Zendaya as the desert native Chani. Dune is bathed in menace and madness – its brooding intensity a cautionary vision of a future defined by forever wars, fueled by corporate greed and brittle tribalism.
Frank Herbert was deeply influenced by Islamic history and Bedouin culture when he wrote Dune. The novel's central character, Paul, is a futurist Lawrence of Arabia, an ode to one of Herbert's key influences. In that same spirit, Villeneuve filmed Dune in Jordan's Wadi Rum – the canyons of rock and sand where David Lean shot the iconic 70mm sequences of his Oscar-winning film adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia. As in that film, the white savior narrative so customary in Hollywood stories is complicated by an extraordinary landscape that challenges the intentions and identity of the outsider. While there are certainly legitimate critiques to be made about the Orientalism and the romanticism of stories like Lawrence and Dune, what feels most important is the extent to which they are landscapes haunted by failure.
'Dune' is bathed in menace and madness – its brooding intensity a cautionary vision of a future defined by forever wars, fueled by corporate greed and brittle tribalism.
To hear the Arabic-inflected local language of the desert planet Arrakis, where the story unfolds, and to see its vast landscapes is to be quite literally transported to the Middle East. The desert sequences were filmed on location in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The fictional resource-rich planet possesses a coveted substance known as 'spice,' which fuels intergalactic travel and is the most obvious allegory of the oil wars that haunt the real-life Middle East. In Herbert's imagination, Arrakis' sand dunes conceal the world of the native Fremen: robed tribes fluent in the workings of the desert, and a mystical, religious people who believe in a prophetic possibility of defeating the outsiders who seek to conquer their lands.
On the other side of the universe, Caladan is the misty, forest native planet of the House of Atreides – a setting filmed in real-life Norway for the film's central (white) family in tailored uniforms. When the Emperor hands possession and rule of the dunes of Arrakis to the House of Atreides, cartons are packed and armies assembled as a new colonial regime begins. There are, of course, immediate and intentional political cues to seeing a Western military power invade a seemingly primitive desert culture in hopes of extracting lucrative mineral resources. As it turns out, the sands of Arrakis conceal a sophisticated and resistant native society – as well as natural forces no military equipment can defeat. (Sandworms!)
I first saw Dune last month on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Its original release was delayed by the pandemic so, with the accident of timing, the IMAX world premiere happened to coincide with the anniversary commemorations in Washington, Pennsylvania and New York City. On that day, the festival organizers held a panel reflecting on the legacy of the attacks, with Denis Villeneuve in attendance. It was a moment to look back at how popular culture had metabolized the losses and the aftermath of that Tuesday. While there have certainly been films about 2001, counterterrorism and American grief, there have also been limitations to how truthful those studio-funded narratives could be about the broken world that 9/11 made. Misguided wars, national failures of understanding, Islamophobia, and surveillance were all starring features of the past two decades – but those ideas have rarely been represented with much urgency. But these themes are given proper attention in Villeneuve's modernization of Herbert's novel – in his drawing out the narrative and the dangers of "us" versus "them."
Dune is certainly not a direct allegory for Western military misadventures in the Muslim world – or ripped from the headlines of recent foreign policy handwringing about the tragic drawdown in Afghanistan. At its core, the film is a faithful adaptation of a prescient and beloved sci-fi novel that preceded all those headlines. But Villeneuve is also a highly intelligent contemporary filmmaker, drawn to stories that push the mettle and limits of his characters. Whether it was the Lebanese Civil War in his breakout Oscar-nominated film Incendies or the U.S.-Mexico border in Sicario, Villeneuve is a filmmaker drawn to political fault lines and uncomfortable awakenings. There is a brooding drama to his work that rarely provides closure or answers. He crafts images and ideas designed to linger.
In one of the IMAX sequences in Dune, military helicopters with dragonfly wings hover across vast desert landscapes, scanning and searching for spice fields and insurgent tribes as Hans Zimmer's score rumbles below. Drones search for sandworms as radio signals and viewfinders become an integral part of the film's visual language. In one extraordinary and terrifying set piece, missiles and flames fall like rain over an airfield. That mood of madness and war never lifts from Villeneuve's filmmaking. It feels fitting for a war film about tomorrow made for today.
America's wars of 9/11 were essentially sand wars, waged in inhospitable and formidable ancient cultures amid expansive, cinematic landscapes. Insurgencies and guerilla warfare humbled and crumbled delusions of victory despite military superiority. What Dune achieves – as Frank Herbert himself wrote – is an ambivalence and suspicion of "good wars." The film's allegiance is with the natives, and certainly with cultural humility toward the unfamiliar and the unknowable. Colonizing another is a brutal if not a fatal mission. There is also a palpable fatigue and exhaustion from waging distant wars that haunts the soldiers of Dune. Unseen but ever-present forces make Arrakis a graveyard of Empires – and an ambivalence about heroism makes Dune a quite rare mainstream Hollywood epic for and about the world 9/11 made.
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