Film Review: Getting “Dune” Right — Superheroes Critiqued
By Michael Marano
One of the great strengths of this Dune is that it humanizes its protagonists. They are detailed human characters, which makes their assuming the mask of the White Savior all the more troubling.
Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screening in cinemas around New England.
A shot in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune of Stellan Skarsgård as the insane, vicious colonizer Baron Vladimir Harkonnen directly alludes to a shot from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now of Marlon Brando as the insane, vicious colonizer, Col. Kurtz.
Brando’s Col. Kurtz is, of course, based upon Mr. Kurtz, the crazed villain of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, which remains a powerful statement about “the horror, the horror” of colonialism. Both Col. and Mr. Kurtz are worshiped as gods by the “natives” they exploit, the trope of the White Savior pushed to genocidal extremes. Villeneuve’s film, the full title of which is Dune: Part One — it only covers the first half of the classic Frank Herbert novel (1965) — shows us how the foundations of that kind of irrational worship, which leads to abuse and mass killing, are established.
Only in this case, that worship and exploitation isn’t for the sake of a Kurtz stand-in, but for the benefit of the nominal “good guys.”
The same way Herbert did with his novel, Villeneuve comments on colonialism across history. With that shot of a Kurtz-like colonizer from the far future who exploits the desert planet Dune for its natural resources, the director mirrors his science fiction yarn back to the US clusterfuck that was the Vietnam War as well as King Leopold of Belgium’s brutalization of the Congo (which Conrad critiqued). Along the way, the film treats us to images of SCUD-like missiles raining death upon “soft targets” (otherwise known as “people”), and the destruction, through nighttime bombardment, of an ancient walled city rising up out of the desert. This violent act of seizing natural resources could be spliced into old news footage of the 1991 Gulf War without too much jiggering.
Dune, the novel, and David Lynch’s earlier film from 1984, and the miniseries from 2000, are tapestries of colonialist fantasy and orientalism, depicting how Paul, that young White Savior, “goes native” before being elevated to semi-divine, superhero status. Villeneuve, like Herbert, and very much unlike James Cameron, when it came to Avatar, is smart enough to see through the bullshit of this narrative, and to bitchslap it. In a 1980 essay in Omni, Herbert wrote that he wanted to tackle “the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us. Demagogues, fanatics, con-game artists, the innocent and the not-so-innocent bystanders — all were to have a part in the drama. This grows from my theory that superheroes are disastrous for humankind. Even if we find a real hero (whatever-or whoever-that may be), eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that always comes into being around such a leader.”
Lynch missed the point when he made Paul an actual Messiah who could will life-giving rains from Dune’s arid sky, and the miniseries glossed over it. One of the great strengths of this Dune is that it humanizes its protagonists. And the fact that they are detailed human characters makes their assuming the mask of the White Savior all the more troubling and dramatic. They’re Herbert’s “fallible mortals,” and that makes for a good movie and sharp political commentary. “Who will our next oppressors be?” wonders a native of the planet Dune, as the cohorts of the Kurtz-like Baron Harkonnen withdraw. Villeneuve gives us fully fleshed-out answers to that age-old question.
Dune rather brilliantly drops us into the workings of a sprawling Galactic Empire by placing us into the intimate workings of a household. The “Good Guy Colonizers” of the noble House Atreides — the White Savior kid, Paul, his powerful Bene Gesserit witch of a mom, Jessica, and his dad, Duke Leto and their retinue — are given lovely portraits that convince you these are people who love each other. And each of those nuanced portraits contributes to the film’s world-building, its intricate look at the political, economic, and technological workings of the universe in which Dune takes place. From psychic power training at the breakfast table to weapons training in a home gym, character development is conscripted for the kind of exposition that, in a lot of genre movies, is front-loaded into senseless voice-overs right around the opening credits. (A lot of backstory is spoon-fed to us through Paul’s talking textbooks, but it’s forgivable.)
And the different planets and their cultures in this Dune feel like fully realized cultures in ways that few, if any, science fiction movies have ever pulled off. At the same time, the narrative doesn’t stop to invite us to gawk at these fully realized creations.
The movie does stop … or nearly stop … far too many times as Villeneuve overrelies on slow-motion to create dream-like realities. He doesn’t seem to trust the quality of his own shots. There is a point when footage of people walking through the rain should just be shot at regular speed. But there’s no denying that his approach provides moments of grandeur. And it reflects his admirable ambition. A major studio nabbed a hugely recognizable intellectual property — and let a filmmaker stamp his personal vision on it. This is a more miraculous occurrence than any all-too human messiah could conjure.
The full realization of these characters, these relationships, and these worlds, makes the looming darkness of Dune all the more effective. This is, after all, the story of a kid who decides to take up the mantle of the White Savior for the sake of what he thinks will be a better human future, which is, if you squint right, another way to say “White Man’s Burden.” This is a coming-of-age story of a colonizer, a much, much prettier interplanetary version of Kurtz. Villeneuve and his screenwriters have kept Herbert’s central warning about “super-heroes” in an age in which most of our big, epic movies will feature super-hero protagonists of a type that Herbert proclaimed were “disastrous for mankind.” All of our current comic book movies are diluted forms of the “messianic convulsions” the writer condemned (and I’m speaking as a life-long comic book fan). This is a story of colonialism that successfully critiques it, and any sprawling genre spectacular that has that much self-awareness is, by definition, a movie worth seeing.
Michael Marano (www.michaelmarano.com) was 14 and deathly ill with pneumonia when he first read Dune, and the thought he might die before he could finish it was a very real concern as he slipped in and out of delirium to be conscious enough to read it for an hour or so at a stretch. He has been covering film for the nationally syndicated Public Radio Satellite System program Movie Magazine International, which airs in 111 markets in the US and Canada. He has provided film reviews and pop culture commentary for a variety of national publications, and Tweets at @MikeMarano