Dune Knows How To Be Serious
“I’ve been having dreams.”
The line is Paul Atreides’ (delivered by an impressive Timothée Chalamet) in Denis Villeneuve’s recently released Dune: Part One. Young Paul’s dreams are not the Disney variety, in any and every sense you want to take that. These are, rather, prophetic-like visions. They’re not always entirely accurate, but Paul is reliably seeing a possible future. He’s getting the gist.
If you’re not up to snuff on the Dune plot, it may be helpful to peruse a Wikipedia page or two. Professional film reviewers are obliged to parse out the political/ecological/religious/dynastic intricacies of Frank Herbert’s densely constructed sci-fi trilogy, but that’s not a requirement of hobby blogging.
I write what I want. That’s the joy of it.
And where Dune’s concerned, what I want to write about is the lingering effect of this spectacle. Why did it stay with me? Why did I think about it for days after seeing it?
It had to do with cinematographer Greig Fraser‘s prodigious eye for lighting and scale and locating characters in beautifully wrought, distinct environments, yes. And it absolutely had much to do with Hans Zimmer’s ominous and strange and hauntingly epic musical score. Across the yawning galaxy of Herbert’s human characters, every actor and actress in this first installation worked, worked well, and boy, let’s just state plainly that is never, never a guarantee, no matter what the on-paper Hollywood star roster says.
But ultimately, this is Villeneuve’s achievement. He’s working with some very sober, stern source material (the film’s few jokes and banter come courtesy of the screenwriters, not Herbert), and Villeneuve is an openly earnest guy. He recently publicly excoriated Warner Bros. and AT&T for reneging on a theater-only opening for Dune, insisting they must learn to respect the integrity of film as art — and not just disposable streaming content to feed Big Media maws. Money quote:
“I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says. Since the dawn of time, humans have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences. Cinema on the big screen is more than a business, it is an art form that brings people together, celebrating humanity, enhancing our empathy for one another — it’s one of the very last artistic, in-person collective experiences we share as human beings.”
This is romantic idealism, the sort of heartfelt sentiment one expects from a Matthew Arnold treatise on the Importance of Poetry, sure, but not the take we’re accustomed to here on this side of 1900.
And it is, as they say, a revelation.
Villeneuve accepts the world Herbert imagined on its own terms, and those terms are: fate of the universe at stake, start to finish. Paul is born at the end of an era; he himself is, in fact, the herald of a new future. What will come is not exactly predestined — human maneuvering gets its due. Hence, the dreams. (Ol’ John Calvin would get a big kick in the pants out of this setup, and it’s too bad the curmudgeon isn’t around to tell us his dark, damnation takes).
Paul’s dreams are possible futures. Throughout the trilogy, he learns to ride these waves of vision, searching for the one chronology that prevents mass genocide on a scale unimaginable to our puny, one-planet minds. For a good long while, he’s a fairly straightforward good guy. That’s the Paul we’re seeing in Dune: Part One.
Likewise, the people around Paul are feeling the weight of a potential apocalypse, whether personal or cosmic or both. Religious prophecy, manufactured or not, makes Paul’s appearance on Arrakis a seminal event, kickstarting a contagion of zealous devotion. His mother, Lady Jessica, is alternately hopeful and despondent that Paul might be the Kwisatz Haderach, the “messiah” of the cult of Bene Gesserit sisters, to which she belongs. They’ve been planning and plotting for centuries to breed this magical man into existence, the ostensible goal being (and when is it ever not?): a better w̶o̶r̶l̶d̶ universe.
Dr. Liet Kynes, the visionary ecologist of Arrakis, knows how to turn the parched planet into a self-sustaining oasis of verdant life. The desert-dwelling Fremen believe in this mission, and they feel destined to take back their homeland from its colonizers, and they are definitely feeling this destiny will be violent.
Meanwhile, Paul’s father, Duke Leto, is walking the walk of an honorable nobleman, following the emperor’s orders to rule Arrakis in place of the oppressive, grotesque House Harkonnen. That he is being politically manipulated and set up to fail is no secret to Leto, but as he tells his army when they make the move official:
“We are House Atreides! There is no call we do not answer. There is no faith that we betray.”
I promised myself to steer clear of these plodding plot summaries (because I do detest them), so here’s the point. This is a world populated by adults, and not a one of them has any room for error. Each individual in this story, and the very survival of entire dynasties with whom their common destiny is shared, is under constant threat from numerous fronts. And everyone here is deeply connected to some part of their ancestral past and fully committed to their tribe’s collective future. There are no “lol, nothing matters” moments, no one in this universe would understand, much less accept, that kind of nonchalant attitude. You wouldn’t survive. In fact, you shouldn’t.
In Villeneuve’s Dune, everything matters.
I suppose I left the theater feeling the weight of a different kind, the burden of living in a world chock-full of lulz. We’re well-fed, we’re plenty entertained, we’re coasting off 75+ years of occasionally interrupted world peace, living in a country that hasn’t seen a foreign ground invasion of any consequence in well over 200 years.
The well-fed and peaceful living parts seem like (er, mostly) unmitigated goods. The deluge of entertainment, not so much.
But Dune seems to be making a connection between seriousness and hardship. I haven’t seen a collection of characters this uniformly sober-minded since I attempted an Ingar Bergman binge (and his characters are, always, suffering in some way). There’s a reason Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Duncan Idaho stole every scene he waltzed into. That buoyant twinkle in his eye and inevitable smirk were just so out of place, however charming, in this habitat. As a viewer, you’re thankful for Duncan. But you also sort of know, right out the gate… even this guy’s low-key jolly is probably a liability on Arrakis.
We millennials are children of the Apatow age and the nonsense frippery of the 90s rom-com (which I must admit, I still love), born during the economic boom of Reagan, the fall of Communism, the End of History b.s., and all that. We have been raised on entertainment that his fundamentally unserious — superhero franchises, the reign of man-baby comedic talent (Ferrell, Galifinakis, Rogen, Cera, Hill), the rise of girl-baby comedic talent (Dunham, Schumer, Glazer, Jacobson), and the mind-killing domination of indefatigable stupidity known as social media.
Culture told us we were individually special, and fulfilling our personal dreams should be our life’s mission.
You can be anything! You do you.
But, you know. It turns out that living just for yourself is ultimately depressing as hell, even if you are “successful.”
Compared to the gravitas of Dune’s characters — which are fictional, sure, but are not unimaginable to us, we’ve known people like them from history — the average 21st-century adult life is unbearably light. Filled with noise and images, television, tweets and tweeps and likes and screeds, dazed with screens from sunup to midnight, an existence that never asks, and never has to ask, anything about itself beyond itself.
“I’ve been having dreams,” says Paul. Not vapid wish fulfillment dreams indicative of an arrested development, but dreams rooted in the deep past, dreams linking, inextricably, the dreamer with people and planets and ultimate purpose. These dreams are a flat out rejection of our 21st-century notion of hermetically sealed individual autonomy.
Maybe we can start having some of them too.