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

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

The good news for dedicated fans of Ridley Scott’s highly influential sci-fi epic Blade Runner is that its three decades-late sequel, directed by Arrival‘s Denis Villeneuve, is entirely worthy of its predecessor. In the age of endless cash-in reboots & sequels, we tend to wince at rehashings of our personally-beloved properties in fear that the new material will dilute or cheapen the original’s memory. Blade Runner 2049 is more or less on par with the quality of the original Ridley Scott film, so protective fans who hold that one close to the heart can go ahead & relax. For the less avid among us, it’s not quite as exciting of a proposition. The stunning visual achievements of both Blade Runner films are undeniable in their potency. Scott’s neon-lit future-noir dystopia has influenced essentially every sci-fi futurescape that followed in its wake. Villeneuve’s hologram-filled, mustard-colored toxic wasteland is a worthy descendant of that vision, broadening the scope of its universe by stretching its tendrils into the dead spaces beyond its overpopulated urban clusters instead of simply recreating the original’s look with 2010s CGI. The stories staged within those visual, world-building achievements are much less impressive, however. Remembering details from the narratives of either Blade Runner film is like grasping sand in your palm; over time it all slips away. Blade Runner 2049 lives up to its namesake in that way just as much as it does as a visual achievement. Its surface pleasures are lastingly awe-inspiring, but the substance of the macho neo noir story they serve is ephemeral at best.

Ryan Gosling picks up the torch as the titular blade runner this go-round, following in Harrison Ford’s footsteps as he unravels a brand new corporate intrigue mystery about the future of artificial intelligence production. The manufacture of “replicants”, a form of A.I. slave labor gone rogue, has been made illegal on Earth; Gosling is employed to “retire” (destroy) the remaining Earthling replicant rebels who’ve slipped past police surveillance. They’re difficult to distinguish from naturally-born humans, but Gosling’s blade runner (eventually named some variation of Josef K, presumably after Kafka’s The Trial) is especially great at his job, mostly because he himself is a replicant, a traitor to his “people.” Between being insulted for being a “skinjob” traitor by everyone he encounters & playing out 1950s suburban domesticity fantasies with his A.I. hologram wife, K unearths a dangerous secret that might interrupt the balance between man & man-made machines while on one of his “retirement”/execution assignments. This grand scale conspiracy mystery gradually involves an expanding cast of futuristic heavies: an A.I. programmer who lives in an isolation chamber (Wetlands‘s Carla Juri, of all people); a rogue replicant manufacturer who verbally plays God through a string of philosophically empty, Bray Wyatt-style pro wrestling promos (Jared Leto, nearly tanking the picture); a haggard Harrison Ford reprising his role from the first film (hours later than you’d expect to see him); etc. K’s stoic P.O.V. at the center of this expanding cast remains a consistent anchor, though, relying on the exact same stone-faced masculinity charm Gosling employed to carry Drive. As big as the story is in an interplanetary, meaning-of-life kind of way, its focus always remains centered on the significance (or insignificance) of K’s function within it, even allowing the climax to be reduced to/resolved by a fist fight in an enclosed space.

Seeing this kind of a slow-moving, ultra-macho sci-fi noir on the big screen is the ideal setting. This is true not only because the surface pleasures of its visual achievements & sound design are its best assets, but also because it’s much less difficult to be distracted during its near-three hour runtime. Blade Runner 2049 technically boasts more sex, more violence, and more humor than the original, but it still leans heavily on the macho, hard sci-fi philosophizing of a Tarkovsky film or an academic lecture (it’s no mistake that a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire physically makes an appearance); that’s the exact kind of headspace where my mind invariably wanders. Looking back on its plot days after the screening I can recall big picture details in what it was trying to accomplish: a subversion of the Chosen One’s function in the Hero’s Journey, an echo of the human-A.I. entanglements of Spike Jones’s Her, whatever playing God nonsense Leto was mumbling about “storming Eden” & “the dead space between the stars,” etc. That’s not what makes the film impressive, however. What really sticks with you as the fine sand plot details slip through your fingers is the strength of its imagery. The way holograms haunt physical spaces or the way neon advertisements light the creases between the drab grey blocks of urban sprawl as a wall of synths wash over Hans Zimmer’s orchestral score is what ultimately remains as the dystopic dust clouds of the narrative clear. 2049 is true to the DNA of Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner in that way, for better or for worse.

-Brandon Ledet

Arrival (2016)

fourstar

I was very shaky on Arrival’s merits as high concept sci-fi until its third act revelations & narrative upendings completely turned me around on how I was thinking about the story it was telling. As such, it’s difficult to discuss the film’s successes without diving headfirst into spoilers, which is something I’d like to avoid in this review if possible. Arrival is a film about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages. Similarly, the film has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. It’s often said that movies are about the journey, not the destination, a (cliché) sentiment I’d typically tend to agree with, but so much of Arrival‘s value as a work of art hinges on its concluding half hour that its destination matters just as much, if not more than the effort it takes to get there. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.

My initial complaints about Arrival‘s narrative shortcomings are fairly indicative of how I feel about high-concept sci-fi cinema as a whole. With a lot of hard sci-fi, Big Ideas are given prominence while smaller, more personal emotions take an unfortunate back seat. In an ideal sci-fi work, something like Ex Machina or Midnight Special, those two ends meet a well-balanced compromise. Arrival struggles to find that compromise, opening with a world-class linguist (played by a wonderfully measured & muted Amy Adams) as she recounts the loss of a child & the monotony of an academic life lived alone, but not taking the time to live in those moments & make their emotional impact count for something. The familial drama at the film’s center is conveyed through an impressionistic set of Tree of Life-type imagery & brief conversational snippets, a preview of the worst information dump stretches of the film’s eventual alien invasion plot that finds Adams’s protagonist at the center of a potentially world-ending interplanetary negotiation. The way narrative information is conveyed in Arrival is often cold & blatantly utilitarian, at one point even spelled out in a narrated monologue that completely disrupts the flow of its storytelling rhythm. The film is much more interested in the global implications of an alien invasion (within which it’s much less realistic than a Godzilla film from this year of all things, in how it depicts America’s involvement in such a crisis) and the tensions between military & academia in its problem-solving strategies than it is depicting the smaller scale personal impact that would make these tensions resonate with any significance. Any and all personal drama within Arrival, no matter how traumatic, exists only to serve the weirder turns the plot takes in its mind-bending second half. It’s a good thing that the ideas they serve in the film’s gloriously strange conclusion are so interesting that their emotionless delivery in the front end doesn’t matter in the slightest.

I’m typically a style over substance audience when it comes to movies, especially sci-fi, so a lot of Arrival wasn’t my usual mode of genre filmmaking. Until the film pushes its narrative into the loopy, paradoxical territory of its glorious third act, it mostly just reminded me of The Martian: a reasonably entertaining story of scientific problem-solving with more in-the-moment significance than ideas worth chewing over long-term. I was very much struck by the film’s design of the alien species and their vaguely egg-shaped ships, which had a kind of 2001 monolith vibe in their clean lines & oppressive grandeur. The film would have been perfectly admirable as a The Day the Earth Stood Still-style parable about humanity’s potentially aggressive response to alien contact had it remained a straightforward story, but it thankfully expands into something much stranger & much more unique. Arrival is above all else a story about the power of language, how it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict, how learning a new one can rewire your brain to think differently. Once you learn the film’s own language, you start to understand that it was never a straightforward story to begin with, that it was always just as strange as the places it eventually takes you in its final act. This rewiring of audience perception takes a little patience before it reaches a significant payoff and it’s one I expect is better appreciated when experienced rather than explained. Director Denis Villeneuve tried to do something similar with the surreal conclusion of his film Enemy, another work that plays with his audience’s linear perception of storytelling, but I think he’s much more successful in pulling off the trick in Arrival. For all of my early misgivings about the film’s emotionless information dumps & preferences for big ideas over small character moments (despite the best efforts of Adams & other capable actors like Michael Stuhlbarg, Forrest Whitaker, and Jeremy Renner), the weird dream logic surrealism and paradoxical reality-shifting of the final act makes all of those complaints entirely worthless. The truth is that the film & I just started off speaking different languages and it’s value as a work of high-concept sci-fi storytelling was lost in translation until we found common ground. I’m very much eager to give it a second look now that I know how to communicate with its more outlandish ideas in a less-linear, less literal fashion.

-Brandon Ledet

Sicario (2015)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

One of the initial reasons I wanted to check out Sicario while it was still in the theaters was that during the film’s early press a lot was made about the fact that Emily Blunt’s protagonist was almost replaced with a male lead due to pressure from nervous producers, presumably because they believed that alteration would sell more tickets. I caught a clip of Blunt promoting the film on Stephen Colbert’s talk show where she quoted a producer as saying “If you make her a dude, we’ll up the budget,” a fucked up sentiment the actress backed up with, “Welcome to Hollywood.” This gross line of thinking gets more & more outdated every year, especially when you consider the recent success of female-led action properties like The Hunger Games, Mad Max: Fury Road, Divergent, Lucy, and the list goes on. Hell, even Blunt herself outshone Tom Frickin’ Cruise with her action star prowess in last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. I initially had very little interest in Sicario based on its trailers, due to its drug cartel-busting subject matter & the promise of a relentlessly bleak tone, but I resented the idea that the film’s lead was once potentially going to be genderswapped to supposedly make more money. I resented it so much that I decided to support the film while it was still in the theater in the simple act of buying a ticket.

It turns out that the film is actually pretty good. I don’t have any particular fascination with the subject of drug cartels & border control outside of what I read about it in the news, so I’d usually be much more likely to seek out a trashier, goofier take on the topic like, say, the recent, grotesque Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage. Sicario is a lot more realistic than that ugly affair, following a multi-agency operation (mostly between the FBI & the DOJ) that seeks to shake up the status quo of typical drug raid protocol in an attempt to dethrone a couple of kingpin brothers wreaking havoc in Phoenix, AZ & Juárez, Mexico. The “war on drugs” becomes quite literal as Blunt’s law-abiding SWAT member goes on a Training Day-style tour of how much more effective it is for drug enforcement agents to break the rules entirely. In an attempt to get a leg up in an ongoing power struggle, the United States government essentially becomes a well-funded rival cartel, resorting to acts of kidnapping, torture, and assassination to get the results that the by-the-books drug raids simply aren’t. When Blunt’s protagonist pleads “What the fuck are we doing?” & “I’m not a soldier,” in protest of their far from legal war tactics, her helplessness as a pawn in the shakeup is alarming. Questionable authority figures played by Benicio del Toro & Josh Brolin intentionally keep her in the dark as they put her life in danger & overtly manipulate her into participating in human rights violations. At one point del Toro snarls, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears and you will doubt everything we do. But in the end, you will understand.” That last part may be true, but understanding is not the same as approving.

What Sicario does best is establishing a claustrophobic threat of violence. Early in the film a shootout in a tiny drug house reveals walls lined with dozens of corpses. Bombs go off unexpectedly. Dismembered bodies are strung under overpasses as warnings. Shootouts in traffic jams & underground tunnels cramp the audience into inescapable spaces riddled with gunfire. A tense, ominous soundtrack makes visual cues like night vision, Western landscapes, and blood running thin in shower water look impossibly alien. Much like how the recent Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass gets by purely on the strength of its acting, Sicario might be a mostly predictable film in terms of narrative, but it creates such a violent, foreboding atmosphere, that some scenes make you want to step out in the lobby for a breath of fresh air (or to puke, as the cops who discovered the early scenes’ in-the-wall corpses couldn’t help doing).

One thing’s for sure: no matter what your mileage with a serious action film centered on US/Mexican border drug cartels may be in general, Sicario would not have been at all improved by replacing Emily Blunt’s character with a male lead, no matter what a scumbag Hollywood producer would like you to believe. The few supporting roles played by men within the film are pitch perfect, especially in small character details like the way Josh Brolin turns the simple acts of whistling & chewing gum into unbearable grotesqueries or in Benicio del Toro’s delivery of cinema’s all-time most violent wet willy (that’s one for the ages, right there), but it’s Blunt’s performance that provides the film with the bulk of its pathos. Sicario is a fine film, but Blunt is a damn fine actor. It’s a testament to the characters of Sicario‘s director & writer, Denis Villeneuve & Taylor Sheridan, that they stuck with Blunt & didn’t opt for that promise of a bigger budget. The results were certainly worthwhile & hopefully it’ll help lead to idiotic propositions like that dying away forever.

-Brandon Ledet