Friday, 22 October 2021


Set in a distant future where mankind has scattered itself amongst the stars, transforming their adopted planets into machines of pure, smoke-choked, industry or monuments to a scattered and arcane past, Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune - the director sharing co-writer credits with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth - is an unusual proposition for an American financed space opera. Unlike, say, a Star Wars or a Star Trek, Villeneuve's Dune neither portrays humanity as obscure or idealised. Instead eight thousands years of relentless progress may have given us incredible technological leaps, like an instantaneous solution to the enormous distances associated with space travel, but society itself has congealed into a kind of pre-industrial feudalism. 

Throughout Villeneuve's Dune there's a sense that mankind has battered forward through the centuries to arrive at a point where, for all their boons, they are just better able to beam their failures and shortcomings out into space. This pitch black universe, rather than offering brand new opportunities or transcendental experiences, has turned out to be an enormous canvas, just waiting to be painted red with fire and blood. Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the heir to House Atreides, a dukedom in a vast - and largely unseen - intergalactic empire underpinned by dutiful servants, who double as human computers, and a powerful cult of witches who plant prospects throughout the empire, armed with breeding instructions. Paul is the result of one of those procreations (if not necessarily the strict order that directed it), a young nobleman afflicted with involuntary glimpses of moments in his life he has yet to live. 

Although Paul's adventure remains incomplete here in terms of the original text - this telling concludes just as the young duke and his mother press deeper into the desert to join the mysterious Fremen - Villeneuve's film does register as a complete work, one centred around a parapsychological call and response within Paul's mind. This internalised conversation slowly overwhelms the shape and direction of the piece, carrying us away from rigid order, off towards an almost formless state of acquiesced myth. While still on his home planet of Caladan, a wind swept naval barracks, Paul dreams of the desert planet Arrakis and Zendaya's Chani, a beautiful young woman with blue on blue eyes. Although broadly walking a path that aligns with Campbellian heroics, the young Atreides is a more curious example of an anointed one; a character who slowly adjusts to his place within the manipulative, messianic, rhetoric whispered amongst nomads to massage his coming. 

A character like Luke Skywalker (an obvious point of comparison since George Lucas' film series clearly takes a great many cues from Herbert's work) might slowly attune himself to the same mysticisms that enveloped his father but the road to power he undertakes is deliberately portrayed as something to be seized. Paul Atreides is a different animal, a child raised amongst nobility and instructed in the politics of warfare. That's the aspect of the character defined by his father, Oscar Isaac's Duke Leto, and the seat of power Paul will come to hold should the Atreides reign remain uninterrupted. His mother, Rebecca Ferguson's Lady Jessica, has an even deeper stake in this child. We learn she had the power of design over his birth, selecting his gender to please his father and, in the process, thwarting the centuries long machinations of her spy masters the Bene Gesserit. Paul's is a destiny that isn't taken then, it's an ancient plan that he surrenders to. 

That Paul is male hasn't prevented Jessica from teaching him the ways of her all female religious order either. Slowly, he is coached to reproduce several techniques centred around coercion, the most powerful of which are the croaking words of a hag, a technique that allows the Bene Gesserit to overwhelm the weak-minded, bending them to their will. Paul's stewardship then goes beyond the basic act of training. He has, to some degree, been manufactured by Jessica; a notable bloodline directed - through her - towards the kind of figure that religions can be founded upon. Within Paul are the powers inherent to the male and female aspects of this strange universe working in, if not harmonious, then certainly complementary ways. The most terrifying aspect of Dune then is that Paul is conscious of this potential future and, eventually, works towards it; overcoming his disgust at having been physically and politically fabricated. The tension in Villeneuve's Dune is that of an assumption. What is it that makes Paul Atreides special? His tragic experiences? His possession of a mind that trespasses outside strictly ordered time and space? Or is it simply his willingness to be battered towards Godhood? 

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