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

Doctor Sleep (2019)

I reread The Shining this past October. It was part of my effort to read more spooky books after finishing up a posthumous Shirley Jackson collection (Let Me Tell You) that had a few good gothic outliers in it but was largely more domestic than the portions of her body of work with which I was more familiar (my next read after The Shining was David Mitchell’s Slade House, which was great but should really only be read if you’ve already finished his Bone Clocks, which is an endeavor). My erstwhile roommate and I talked about it midmonth when we met up for a mutual friend’s birthday, and he mentioned that, of all of Stephen King’s works that he had read, The Shining is the one that most closely resembles an objective (and admittedly pretentious) definition of “literature,” and as someone who loved the pulpiness of The Dead Zone but also literally threw Salem’s Lot into the trash at about the midway point, I had to agree. At the time, I had no idea that the forthcoming Doctor Sleep was an adaptation of the sequel to the earlier novel (or a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining from 1980, or something between the two, as the case turned out to be), but boy was I excited once I learned that was the case!

2019 marks the first time that three theatrical King adaptations have hit the big screen in the same year since 1983, which featured the hat trick of Lewis Teague’s Cujo, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, and John Carpenter’s Christine.* I had more positive feelings about IT: Chapter 2 than most (long story short: it was a better Nightmare on Elm Street movie than about half of the films in that franchise) and didn’t see the Pet Sematary remake, but boy was my King itch scratched by Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep follows an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who, following the incident at the Overlook Hotel in the first film, was taught by the ghost of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly, taking over for the late Scatman Crothers) to “lock away” the malevolent spirits that followed him—the rotten woman from Room 237, the Grady twins**, and even Horace Derwent—inside mental boxes. As an adult, he finds himself falling into the same patterns as his father and even going further; he’s not just an alcoholic, but abuses harder drugs as well, and even Jack Torrance never stole cash out of a single mother’s purse. Taking an inventory of his life, Danny starts anew in another town, where he seems to thrive and even becomes “psychic penpals” with a girl named Abra, whose Shining is perhaps even stronger than Danny’s. Elsewhere, however, a group of quasi-immortals called The True Knot seek out and murder children with the Shining in order to feed on their psychic essence. When the Knot’s de facto leader Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) becomes aware of Abra, the group seeks her out as their next victim, and she turns to Danny for help.

I loved this movie. I’ve been a fan of Mike Flanagan’s since Oculus, and I think that he may be the best horror director of this generation. The Haunting of Hill House series that he released last year was stunningly, achingly beautiful, and his adaptation of Gerald’s Game established that he was more than capable of adapting the tone, tension, and dry bones terror of a Stephen King narrative. With him at the helm, there was little to no chance that this film would be anything less than perfect. Every shot is beautifully composed, and although I know many probably balked at the film’s 152 minute runtime, there’s not a single frame of wasted celluloid in this film. Even the moments when, theoretically, nothing is happening (like Danny’s and the Knot’s long cross country drives), the camera watches from a place of elevated removal, watching and waiting and letting the tension build, subtly echoing Rose’s viewpoint when she “flies” while astral projecting in her pursuit of Abra. It’s elegant in its simplicity, but isn’t above descending into occasional camp either (Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer mentioned that the villains gave him strong True Blood vibes, which is a criticism not without merit). This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly. McGregor gives one of his best performances here, and Ferguson is likewise a delight (the supermarket scene is a particular standout). Sleep really and truly deserves all the attention that it’s failing to garner in the mainstream, and is the rare horror sequel to live up to (and feel like it truly belongs to) the legacy of its predecessor.

*Graveyard Shift, Misery, and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie all came out in 1990, but Darkside is an anthology with only one King adaptation in its ranks, so I don’t count that. 2017 actually boasted four features, but Gerald’s Game and 1922 both premiered on Netflix and not in theaters, and although IT was a clear success, the less said about The Dark Tower the better. Technically, King’s website also lists an April 2017 release date for My Pretty Pony, which is a movie that I’m not entirely sure exists. Even the Wikipedia page for the short story on which it is based talks about the film’s 2017 release in the future tense, and I can’t find any evidence of the film ever coming to fruition.

** Yes, I know they are not identified as the children of former caretaker Grady in Kubrick’s The Shining, and that Grady’s daughters in the novel are explicitly not twins (being aged 8 and 10); don’t @ me.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Fuck, Marry, Kill – Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

The general, perhaps hyperbolic consensus about Mission: Impossible – Fallout is that it’s the best action blockbuster to hit the big screen since Mad Max: Fury Road. The two films don’t seem to have much in common beyond being late-in-the-franchise sequels that shrewdly exploit the basic thrills of their shared genre by stringing together a nonstop onslaught of chase sequences through extravagant set pieces. However, they are two pictures that the Swampflix crew was a little too late to the table to add anything substantial to in our coverage. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a great action pic, matching even its predecessor Rogue Nation as one of the best entries in the franchise. As the film was initially released well over a month ago, however, you’ve likely already heard variations of that praise ad nauseam, so instead of properly reviewing the film we’re attempting to avoid excessive critical redundancy by having some late-summer fun objectifying the film’s Hollywood-handsome cast. The series-arcing plot of Mission: Impossible is effectively resettable & amnesia-inducing from film to film; its stunts are technically impressive, but like all amusement park rides are more fun in experience than in description or critique. The only questions we can answer here, then, are which hunky members of the cast we would fuck, which we would marry, and which we would kill.

Brandon

Fuck Henry Cavill – This choice seems self-explanatory to me. Henry Cavill looks like he crawled directly out of a Tom of Finland illustration in this picture; he’s just oozing sex. This is easily the most fun he’s been to watch on-screen since The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (my non-apologies to DCEU die-hards who found a way to look past his digitally “removed” mustache in Justice League to see his true inner hunk), but I doubt he’s ever looked sexier, even in U.N.C.L.E.’s swanky 60s garb. Mustachioed meathead brute is a great look for him, one that turns even the nastier close-quarters fist fights into a homoerotic pleasure.

Marry Ving Rhames – This also seems obvious to me, as Rhames is already costumed like your middle-age husband, ready to barbeque a backyard meal while you & The Kids enjoy a swim. Beyond his Cuban button-ups & Target-brand brimmed hats, he’s also the most sensitive member of Ethan Hunt’s crew, shedding a giant man-love tear for his boss/bestie in one of the film’s defining dramatic moments. Rhames is an adorable middle-age teddy bear in Fallout, which promises a more long-lasting love than what Cavill’s mustachioed fuck-monster can likely offer.

Kill Tom Cruise – In deciding who to kill, I think you have to look past what these Hollywood Hunks are offering onscreen here to examine what they’re doing beyond the scenes. Not only is Tom Cruise a high-level operator of a dangerous global cult, but he’s also risking his life with each Mission: Impossible entry by performing a large percentage of his own increasingly dangerous stunts. It’s highly likely that the real-life Tom Cruise is going to die trying to distract his audience from his key role in Scientology through these over-the-top, life-risking stunts, so he might as well be sacrificed to the hypothetical consequences of this frivolous game. If you need that choice to be justified by the text of Fallout, consider that the film asks you to choose sides against anti-institutional anarchists in the favor of international government agents with free reign to interpret & execute the law, most significantly represented by Cruise as Ethan Hunt. It’s a political philosophy that’s tolerable enough in-film, but ultimately ACAB, so Cruise must die no matter the context.

CC

Fuck Henry Cavill – I mean, pretty much everything Brandon says. It’s not quite a full-blown fetish, but I definitely give extra (sexual) points to a man with a decent mustache*. In a Fuck/Marry/Kill scenario, who wouldn’t take the chance to shag a real-life Tom of Finland illustration?

*The pencil-thin pervert’s mustache and the thick-boi Henry Cavill-style mustache are the only two acceptable styles, however. Walruses, Fu Manchus, and handlebars need not apply.

Marry Simon Peg – He seems like a guy who is good with gadgets and can do a large portion of household maintenance. Even though he’s useless in a fight and lacks the raw sex appeal of pretty much every other guy in this film (background extras included), he seems like he’d be open to some pretty kinky stuff. At the end of the day, a useful pervert is more my speed than a sex idiot (even if it is King Sex Idiot).

Kill Tom Cruise (after fucking him too) – Oh yeah, I’d definitely kill Tom Cruise, but, like, there’s no sense wasting the opportunity to have sex with an ageless cult leader/god. Who knows, maybe magic is real? Let’s be optimistic during the impending End Times.

Adopt Ving Rhames – Ving Rhames and the character he plays in Mission: Impossible both seem like guys who LOVE their mama. I’ve never experienced that level of truly unconditional love and I feel like the intensity of its pure, wholesome light would burn a hole right through my soul – worth it, both for the release from the inescapable ennui of modern life and for how cozy & warm it sounds.

Start a book (wine) club with Michelle Monaghan & Rebecca Ferguson – In the Mission: Impossible movies, these ladies have to put up with so much shit from the men around them. Patriarchy, am I right? Even though one plays a human rights activist/medical doctor, the other plays a super spy, and both are real-life (probably?) wealthy, semi-famous white actresses, I still feel like we’d all have a lot to gab about, like how Henry Cavill is the raw-steak-eaten-while-still-warm-from-the-animal of men and Tom Cruise is a pretty lie we have chosen to believe for far too long. But to make sure we still pass the Bechdel Test when we’re not discussing the Patriarchy, we’d also have books, wine, and the never-ending depths of our existential despair to consider.

-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman