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Movie Review: “Dune”

Towards the end of our honeymoon, my wife and I stopped by the Alabaster Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. It was my first time visiting a mosque, and I honestly had little idea what to expect. Based on years of pop-cultural representations, I think I expected a dark, cavernous dome, illuminated mostly by light shining in through the intricately carved grates and lattices along the walls.

I did not expect the dozens of globes of light hanging suspended from the ceiling, like stars in a firmament, giving the whole structure an altogether otherworldly ambiance. To crib from Oswald Spengler, the mosque was a perfect exemplar of the ancient “prime-symbol” of the Cavern: the universe depicted as a space of perpetual contestation between mystical light and primordial dark.

That image kept coming back to me as I watched Denis Villeneuve’s new take on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic. Villeneuve’s adaptation is, like the mosque of my imagination, a thoroughgoing play of light and shadow—but it is a drama with no stars to gaze toward, no beauty or sublimity to inspire awe. His is a “Dune” that is visually striking and finely crafted, but devoid of transcendent fire.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the influence of Herbert’s 1965 novel: the mix of operatic battles between factions, intricate worldbuilding, and enigmatic spirituality was a powerful influence on “Star Wars,” among countless other works in the genre. Contemporary readers, I imagine, might find the original book a bit of a slog—I certainly did—but there’s no denying its enduring power. Indeed, even a cursory overview of the plot reveals just how many themes Herbert bequeathed the sci-fi tradition.

In the far future, interstellar travel depends on the substance known as “spice,” harvested only from the inhospitable sand planet of Arrakis. As “Dune” opens, the venerable clan of House Atreides—helmed by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac)—is dispatched to Arrakis to oversee the spice extraction effort. In so doing, they replace House Harkonnen, led by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård). Along with Leto come his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet). Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, an all-female order with the power to mind-control others though the supernatural “Voice,” and she has trained Paul to also wield this weapon.

House Harkonnen does not take kindly to this displacement, and following a violent betrayal, Paul and Jessica must flee into the desert. There they hope to find the indigenous “Fremen” people of Arrakis, who have learned to master the planet’s monstrous “sandworms” (imagine something that looks like a cross between a lamprey and a vacuum cleaner).

Let me make one thing clear from the first: Villeneuve is, and always has been, an amazingly talented filmmaker. In his hands, Arrakis comes alive in a cascade of painterly scenes—the lights of aircraft descending through the fog of nighttime battle, the thick vortices of sand that surround an emerging sandworm, the whir of wings of a dragonfly-like “ornithopter” scudding across the dunes. Villeneuve has always had an uncommon eye for mesmerizing visuals—one thinks of the night-vision shootout of “Sicario,” the mist-shrouded heptapods of “Arrival,” the giant spider of “Enemy,” and the sensual neon advertisements of “Blade Runner 2049”—and “Dune” is no exception.

Moreover, “Dune” represents a remarkable success at translating a sprawling, unwieldy novel into an accessible narrative. Villeneuve has always favored character-driven, vaguely downbeat conclusions (see, again, “Blade Runner 2049” and “Sicario”) over big CGI-drenched blowouts, and that tendency serves him well here given that this “Dune” is merely part one of two. True, the movie ends at an unexpected juncture, but I didn’t feel cheated.

So with all that in its favor, what’s not to like?

What holds “Dune” back from genuine greatness is less a matter of what it does than of what it doesn’t do. And what it doesn’t do, in short, is enchant.

Villeneuve’s best movie, “Prisoners,” is a taut, morally gray crime thriller that pushes Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal to the very limits. Like a good David Fincher flick, it’s a movie that’s grim, somber, and utterly suffused with slow-burning menace. And it’s always seemed to me that something of that same harshness, that same sense of resignation to the abject pitilessness and indifference of the cosmos, leaks into everything else Villeneuve directs. 

For a film ostensibly about a scorching desert world, “Dune” feels positively chilly. Maybe it’s the “Dunkirk”-esque Hans Zimmer score throbbing along beneath the surface, or maybe it’s the desaturated color palette, or Chalamet’s vaguely Edward Scissorhands-esque affect. Maybe it’s the thick, staticky bass effect that triggers whenever someone uses the Voice—akin to the “Force” sound effect repeatedly used by J.J. Abrams in the most recent “Star Wars” films—which hints that spiritual reality is first and foremost power, rather than a kind of grace.

But I think the biggest issue here is simply Villeneuve’s refusal to let his audience experience something like wonder. There’s nothing here like the “first flight” sequence of “Avatar,” the binary sunset of “A New Hope,” or the crashed freighter of “Alien”; the closest we come is a quick ornithopter excursion over the sands, which rapidly turns into a tense rescue mission. Yes, some of the glimpses of spice blowing amidst the sands are picturesque, but these shots are few and far between, fleeting exceptions to what’s otherwise a crushingly solemn endeavor.

I’ll withhold final judgment, though, because I may have been wrong all along. Perhaps there’s a subtle point being made here, that the aesthetic austerity of “Dune: Part One” represents in a sense the mindset of colonizers—those incapable of apprehending a landscape without seeing endless raw material for extraction. Perhaps next time around, the audience, with Paul, will learn among the Fremen how to see beneath the surface of things, to the true beauty underlying all. But I’m skeptical. Something in Villeneuve’s directorial constitution seems profoundly resistant to the cinematic language of eternity and symbols and cosmic order that Lucas and Spielberg and others have so masterfully deployed over the years, and it’s hard for me to imagine that changing in the next couple of years.

None of this is to say that “Dune” isn’t a good time at the movies. Go see it, preferably on a large screen. As popcorn entertainment goes, this is A-list stuff.

But don’t expect the next “Star Wars.” Magic like that is far from view here.

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Posted by on October 30, 2021 in Sci-Fi


Movie Review: “Tenet”

I greatly wanted to enjoy this movie. Not only have I admired—if not adored—almost every other film in Christopher Nolan’s canon, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this flick’s cryptic marketing and mystifying summaries. Time travel is a tough theme for any thriller filmmaker to pull off, but if anyone could, I was pretty confident it would be Nolan.

Alas, my hopes were dashed. “Tenet” is a muddled mess shot through with flashes of genius, a visual spectacle badly hamstrung by atrocious sound mixing and choppy exposition dumps—to say nothing of its patchy narrative.

“Tenet” opens with its star (John David Washington, who goes perpetually unnamed) surviving a desperate gunfight at a Ukrainian opera—and subsequently being kidnapped. Following a near-death experience, our hero awakens in the custody of a mysterious organization known as “Tenet,” where he is informed that he has been selected for a special mission. Mysterious bullets moving backwards in time have been turning up around the globe, and it appears that these “inverted” weapons are being trafficked by malicious forces from the future. And so, with the help of the enigmatic—if affable—Neil (Robert Pattinson), our hero sets off on a globe- and time-spanning odyssey that connects them with the ethereal Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), her evil mobster husband Anton (Kenneth Branagh), and a whole host of others given to gnomic pronunciations about the nature of reality.

If asked to generate a logline for this film, I’d describe it as “Terminator” meets “Tomorrow Never Dies.” That’s a promising start, no doubt, and “Tenet” has its share of heart-stopping action sequences. But unfortunately, “Tenet” lacks the internal coherence—and basic cinematic competence—of either of those predecessors. At virtually every turn, critical plot points are buried under avalanches of barely audible exposition, whether shouted over the roar of engines or muttered under the clatter of gunfire. (You’d think, after all the controversy surrounding Bane’s role in “The Dark Knight Rises,” that Nolan would’ve learned not to encourage his actors to mumble their lines into gas masks, but perhaps I presume too much.) And that’s saying nothing of the numerous plot holes that turn up after just a few minutes of reflection while the credits roll. Time-travel flicks are given to this (even the best of the genre, “Looper,” had its share of head-scratchers) but this one really stretches the bounds of credulity. Early on, a characters advises “Don’t think too much. Feel,” and maybe that’s the best approach—but it’s a step down from the taut pacing and tight plotting of Nolan’s prior oeuvre.

But maybe there’s more to “Tenet” beneath the surface, for those who’re willing to look. Any film centered on time travel and the threat of annihilation raises a number of rich questions about free will and determinism. So what, after all, is the fundamental metaphysical vision underlying “Tenet”—and, for that matter, the rest of Nolan’s films more broadly?

The answer, I think, is found in a throwaway line by Neil toward the end of “Tenet”: Neil attributes the events that have unfolded to “fate”—or, if one prefers, merely “reality.” The order of things, if not set in stone, is nevertheless somewhat fixed: all our protagonists are playing out a grant cosmic script of sorts, pawns in a kind of ontological chess game without a player. Such a vision closely resembles the pantheism (or, perhaps, panentheism) of Baruch Spinoza, who famously argued that all things—as aspects of the unconscious infinite substance that is “God”—were deterministically foreordained; to latter-day Spinozists such as Yale’s Anthony Kronman, such a theology is the necessary prerequisite of the world’s infinite intelligibility within a scientific register, which Kronman understands to be the case.

The comparison works here, because that “presumption of total intelligibility” is an assumption that Nolan invites us to make, not just in “Tenet” but in all of his movies. One exits “Tenet” troubled by the suspicion that the film will somehow reward repeat viewings, and that its labyrinthine mysteries will become clear upon just a few minutes of deeper reflection. The same can be said for “Memento,” “The Prestige,” “Inception, “Interstellar, “Dunkirk,” and so forth: in every case, the audience knows, in their bones, that there’s a coherent interpretation of the cinematic data they’re confronted with.

But in “Tenet,” I think Nolan ultimately betrays that faith. Here, there are plot threads that, on any conceivable logic, cannot resolve satisfactorily (in particular, those centered on Pattinson’s character) apart from one’s willingness to lean hard into the willing suspension of disbelief. And this means that, at the end of the day, the story isn’t infinitely intelligible: no number of repeat viewings, I think, will clear up some of these discontinuities. (And that’s saying nothing of the question of “parallel universes” or “parallel timelines” that these sorts of narratives pose: “Tenet” runs very fast and very far away from that issue.)

The great achievement of critics of Spinozism—and its intellectual heirs—has been their exposure of the pretenses of any totalizing “neutral” narrative that claims to be free of subjective influence. In so doing, they force “storytellers” to admit the influence of those inarticulable priors that all people carry with them. And that insight is germane here: no doubt there is some version of “Tenet” that makes some sense in Nolan’s head, just as there is an interpretation of the film that (sort of) makes sense to me—notwithstanding the fact that the images and words onscreen admit of multiple, inconsistent interpretations, and do not themselves arrange themselves into a perfect system. Yet in universal terms, the Spinozistic criterion of infinite narrative intelligibility, unfiltered by human beings’ attempts to “patch up” the story for themselves, remains a distant and inaccessible ideal. Individuated, autonomous rationality, in the end, cannot accomplish what many modern people (including, perhaps, Nolan) seek: there is no “neutral” interpretation of phenomena.

I wish Nolan had invited us into his own understanding of the meaning of his film. For better or worse, the climax of “Interstellar”—with its vision of fatherly love spanning light-years and dimensions—did just that. And so the greatest sin of “Tenet,” ultimately, may not be the fact that it’s choppy and incoherent, but that it’s sterile and impersonal; we’re left, in the end, with a great sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And that’s a line I never wanted to write about any Nolan film.

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Posted by on September 7, 2020 in Sci-Fi

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