In the December Sight & Sound magazine some words about Foundation Year, a micro-budget college romance willed into existence by the enthusiasm of its makers and formerly known as Shithouse, potentially remaining so for at least one viewer. The days when Animal House could make a point about society via bozos in some historic Zeta Zeta Zeta fraternity are already a long way back, but for a current film to earnestly say that the college-age young have skin barely one atom thick seems like a newsflash from another century now that the generation in question is trying to take control of a world both sinking and on fire.
The new film of Dune has a young man with self-confident hair deciding to depose the sitting Emperor of the Known Universe, which sounds nearer the mark.
Denis Villeneuve makes Christopher Nolan look like one of The Merry Pranksters, but since serious science-fiction is a rare cinema species there’s a limit to how much griping is appropriate when someone goes and makes some. Whether Dune actually is hardcore art, or just foundational bits of fantasy business inflated with a very dense gas, is another question. Pondering what originality even looks like in an era of massive cultural surplus is enough to blow a fuse, but you can look at Dune’s sights and sounds, detect their impact and voltage in the moment, and still laugh darkly at the arrival of the latest film full of foam.
Villeneuve’s embrace of sci-fi—three films in a row depending how you classify Arrival—was precisely zero surprise once it became clear that he’s a member of the Architects Film Club (prop: Joseph Kosinski who put Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough on top of a two-mile pole in Oblivion). The built environment gets his juices going: Enemy is about a lot of things but paranoia in Mississauga high-rises is certainly one of them, and Sicario’s roads and tunnels and toll booths and dead ends are shot more tenderly than half the characters, caressed by aerial drone shots. Back at the source of my Villeneuve viewing, Next Floor looked pretty good in 2008 as a dry joke from the Peter Greenaway school of baked atrocity, but in hindsight the rotten building and its creaking timbers are giving the director a thrill on their own. Of course sci-fi appeals to someone with that kind of interest in architectural vibes and the individuals feeling them.
But you still have to make an actual film in there somewhere. Dune Part One has cavernous brutalist rooms to suit the grandiosity that the story endlessly talks about, chambers of anxiety and history. Then the film swings over towards metaphysics and prophecy and altered states, which do not seem to be Villeneuve’s bag at all. In the interiors he gives the full treatment to the faces of Rebecca Ferguson and Stellan Skarsgård, the former dominating any frame she appears in and the latter taking the opportunity to be Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz. Out in the endless desert with its not very individual individuals, the director almost seems to give up, not helped by the self-inflicted stuttering un-climax of Only The Beginning. There’s talk of desert power, but the film is most comfortable with military movie power, ornithopters buzzing like Black Hawks in this particular foreign policy scenario, and evil ships gliding out from behind a mesa like the menacing flyers of Blade Runner 2049, if not Capricorn One.
Whatever the supply chain issues with serious sci-fi, the glut of general mid-table fantasticals all processed through the same post-production software and sloshing around like a cultural wine lake makes the days when sci-fi was supposed to be a headspace and a hacker genre seem as far off as the dinosaurs. Respectability has not done the category much good, judging by what my streaming services keep yelling at me to watch. Dune’s message in a bottle from 1965 isn’t entirely reassuring, about decay and rot of all your established orders and the shock of the probably not very fabulous new and karma that removes the choices from your pretty head; but whether that’s intended to fit quite as well as it does with the deadening ozone of digital effects is anyone’s guess.
Villeneuve put chewy ambiguities into Blade Runner 2049, which compared to Dune trips a lively fandango, and for his trouble got some impressively dim reviews that went to great lengths to miss the point. (Me in Sight & Sound discussing the actual point.) Dune takes no chances with that, partly by aligning even more exactly with a current theme: we are also well-supplied with characters realising the truth about their individual selves, rather than about their class or their collective or their coworkers. Leftism suppressed, while individualism moves in. As the film’s funders no doubt spotted, Dune’s story has always had an angle on the issues of identity without which half of current pop culture might have to head back to the drawing board. Matrix Resurrections approaches on the horizon, returning to stamping grounds of gnostic awakening and the messianic tendency that are a lot more crowded than they were when Neo first put his trench coat on—crowded with Paul Atreides waiting for his story to complete for starters. Whether or not he gets his Part Two it’s still the season of The Ones.