Dune (2021)

My best friend has recently taken to watching Quantum Leap, so I was trying to describe the premise of the show to my born-in-1995 significant other, and I did so mostly with lines from the show’s opening. If you’re reading this site, I assume you remember the gist. Theorizing that one could travel within their own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the quantum leap accelerator and disappeared. Yada yada, yada, setting right what once went wrong, always hoping that the next leap would be the leap home, that sort of thing. I’ve never read Dune. I saw the David Lynch version precisely once when I was quite young (for its Sci-Fi Channel Scinema Event premiere, so … September 1999), and although I was a little bit older when the same station broadcast its self-produced Frank Herbert’s Dune miniseries in 2000, when I tell you that I can’t recall a single thing about it other than that Matt Keeslar was in it, I mean that I can’t recall a single thing about it other than Matt Keeslar. I didn’t even remember that William Hurt was in it until I just looked it up on Wikipedia, and I love that guy. I remembered bits and pieces of Virginia Madsen dressed like the Childlike Empress delivering a huge dump of exposition at the beginning of the 1984 film, mostly her saying the word “spice” a lot. When Brandon asked if I was planning to see the new Dune and if I planned to write about it, asking if I had any personal connection to the source material, I refrained from elaborating that I once bore witness to a not-entirely-cohesive explanation of the novel’s plot while on a largely unsuccessful date, attempting to grasp the relevance of why Kyle McLachlan was named after a mouse while sitting outside of the cafe that used to be next to Funky Monkey and trying to hear my companion’s thin voice over the Number 11 bus loudly idling right next to us. Other than that, most of my Dune knowledge came from an (admittedly ill-informed) Lindsay Ellis video mocking the Lynch adaptation, which was nonetheless beloved by a certain group of my friends; we still sometimes quote “All aboard the party worm, Harkonnens aren’t invited!” to one another. 

Suffice it to say, I gave myself a quick idea of the general plot with a little Wikipedia skim before making my way to the theater, and although it’s complicated, it’s also not impenetrable Coruscant bullshit, either; it makes sense. Some twenty millennia from now, mankind has scattered amongst the stars and settled into fiefdom, with planets ruled by various royal houses who all swear fealty to an emperor. Space travel is enabled by use of the spice melange, a resource found only on the planet Arrakis, a desert world nicknamed “Dune” and inhabited by giant worm creatures and the scavengers known as the Fremen. As our story opens, the emperor has transferred control of Arrakis from its previous caretakers, the morally bankrupt House Harkonnen, to the more popular House Atreides. This is a ploy to weaken the emperor-threatening Atreides family, who are inexperienced with handling the harsh Dune and the demands of mining spice in such an inhospitable environment. Duke Leto Atreides, along with his concubine Jessica and their teenage son Paul, journey to Arrakis with their retinue;  Leto seeks to ally with the Fremen by extending an olive branch rather than carrying on an antagonist relationship with them as the Harkonnens had. Jessica has her own agenda, being a member of the mysterious religious order of the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood of mystics who have been secretly carrying out a galactic eugenics experiment to create a messiah; despite being instructed to bear only daughters for Leto, she gave birth to Paul out of her love for the Duke. The sisters of the order are practiced in both martial arts, stress conditioning, and a kind of super neuro linguistic programming technique called The Voice. 

That’s the backstory, anyway. It’s here that I’ll also admit that I was slightly exaggerating my lack of familiarity with Dune up at the top there, after a fashion. The narrative has always seemed needlessly confusing to me (although it’s pared down here to be extremely parsable for a general audience, not least of all because everybody in 2021 understands fealty, house affiliations, and the like thanks to Game of Thrones), but someone who has spent as much down time reading TV Tropes as I have in the past 13 years doesn’t escape that kind of wiki rabbit-holing without garnering some useless knowledge. So yes, I know a little something about Mentats (human computers who do calculations in lieu of machines due to anti-mechanist sentiment held over following a devastating war between humans and AI), ego-memory (the individual memory of one of the individuals in the chain of matrilinear genetic memory curated by the Bene Gesserit using refined sand worm bile), and kanly (the strictures that allowed for certain forms of socially and legally acceptable conflict and combat between great houses to avoid the potentially greater loss of life resulting from outright war or atomic weaponry). But none of that is really relevant for the narrative of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, all you really need to know is what I’ve outlined for you, and even that’s mostly well-communicated in the text of the film. Or the part of it that’s relevant for this film, anyway.

Duke Leto is herein portrayed by Oscar Isaac, and Lady Jessica is played by Rebecca Ferguson, whom I adore. Since part of the Bene Gesserit’s plan is creating the whitest, twinkiest little messiah you ever did see, we’ve got our whitest, twinkiest actor Timothée Chalamet as Paul. Stellan Skarsgård is unrecognizable as Baron Harkonnen, and Jason Momoa is momoa-ing it up as Duncan Idaho, the super warrior guy that has been training Paul in combat and who spends some time embedded with the Fremen on Arrakis in preparation for the Atreides family’s arrival. Josh Brolin is also there, and Zendaya is Meechee Chani, a Fremen woman about whom Paul has visions. Because of the eugenics, remember. 

So, yeah, about that. The day after I saw the movie, I saw this tweet, in which a person made a blanket statement about what they perceived to be the racist, sexist, gender essentialist, and homophobic intent of Dune, based solely on reading various plot outlines across different wikis. And that person appears, based upon feedback from readers who engaged with the text directly instead of through secondary sources, to be quite wrong about the thesis of Dune. That’s the danger of engaging only with content instead of context, which is the whole reason that freshman composition courses stress the importance of using both primary and secondary sources. And you know, I hope and pray that if I ever make a public declaration that is just flat out incorrect, that I’ll have the humility and to not double down on being an ignorant stubborn asshole. I think about people like this lady after getting ratio’d regarding her extremely niche pet peeve of … people eating bread, or that guy from The Long Winters saw a teachable moment and decided to do the opposite of teaching, or that person who dropped this worm-riddled take about relationships and then smugly got off on pretending that all the responses, even the ones made in good faith, were all in bad faith and thus proved their point (luckily the term “asshole” is not gendered). So when this person, who in general is someone with whom I agree about most cultural critique, responded with, essentially, “lol, even though the error was mine, all feedback will be considered in bad faith regardless of accuracy or intent.” And what’s most frustrating about this—other than everybody has fucking worms in their brain and lacks the humility to even acknowledge when they misread something—is that this person isn’t wrong per se about the Dune film (that they claim not to have watched). 

As a text, Dune (the novel) can be entirely about how racism, eugenics, white saviorism, etc. are all not only facile but also dangerous, but this film opts to drop its cliffhanger at a point where that hasn’t been made clear. However, unless this film were going to be six hours long (or 4.5, as the miniseries was), it arguably can’t get to the narrative point where it doubles back on audience expectation that what appears to be a straightforward western white savior narrative of a kind that they’ve seen before. To invert assumptions, it has to exist in the form that it’s in, and that’s not a bad thing, but our instant gratification, humility-scorning, wikipedia skimming, knee-jerk presumption culture has reached a point where we actually fail to recognize and realize that this is a problem of consumption and commodification. This comes from the left just as often as it does from the right, but there’s a profound inability among the left to see that large IP-holding monoliths have spoonfed audiences for so long that they said consumers have reached a point where no one has the patience to allow time for a narrative to actually create a compelling condemnation of moral ills, and that they themselves are not immune to that kind of indoctrination. Selling the idea of activism as reading a wiki and developing a thesis about a text without engaging with the primary source is part of the commodification of art into yet another thing to mindlessly tweet about without consideration of one’s own foolishness. 

Consider this: Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer had different feelings about Dune than I did. He hated the ending, describing it to me (before I saw it) as “basically a lightsaber fight” and comparing the way that the Fremen crawl around on the rock face in the film’s concluding sequence as something “straight out of West Side Story.” After I saw it and we were texting about it, he sent me a message saying “Tell me you didn’t expect them to start snapping their fingers and closing in like the Sharks.” It reminded me of when I explained the ending of Batman v. Superman mostly talking about the different musical leitmotifs that were used in the climax, as to me that was (and remains) the most interesting thing that happened in the last hour of that movie; this included a (poor) reenactment of the guitar-heavy Wonder Woman theme. Years later, when he saw the movie, that had somehow morphed in his memory into being a story about how the film ended with a literal musical battle, and he was disappointed. But he didn’t have to go on Twitter and say something like “Well excuse me very much for hearing that plot synopsis and thinking that maybe it would be a better movie if it ended with a battle of the bands instead of whatever it actually ended with” because he never went online and proudly declared his misunderstanding in the first place. And the thing is, that the Fremen looked like the Sharks never crossed my mind. But that doesn’t make his reading any less real or true, because he’s engaging with the text directly, not projecting because he’d rather appear to be “better” than the text by not engaging with it. I can’t and don’t agree with that particular sentiment, but that’s ok! It’s still legitimate. 

Anyway, this has, as it often does, turned into less of a review of this movie and more of a jeremiad about how exhausting the discourse is and what that means for our society. Dune is good. It’s great, even. Although I don’t think it’s a good idea for megacorps to try and pressure people who aren’t ready, people who are immunocompromised, people who lack vaccine access, and people who are victims of anti-science rhetoric to the point of complete dissociation from reality to go back to theaters so that they can “see Dune on the biggest screen possible,” I can affirm that I don’t regret that decision. I don’t want to be the Boss Baby vibes guy, but there was an actual moment where the vistas and visuals of the movie made me gasp a little with their beauty, and my first thought was “Disney Star Wars could never.” Dune is good. See it. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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