A still form Dune. A still form Dune. Source: DuneMovie.net

Kevin Ovenden sets his sights on this allegorical space opera’s latest instalment

This second instalment of what will be a trilogy directed by Denis Villeneuve has the stunningly epic feel of the first. Villeneuve’s filmmaking style is to convey ideas and plot through arresting visual imagery and sequences in preference to stage-like dialogue. Moving images. In other words: cinema.

That is an advantage in bringing to the screen what has famously been described as the ‘unfilmable’ novel Dune by Frank Herbert. Published in 1965, it has had a huge influence on science fiction and its capacity, at its best, to explore complex themes way beyond chronicling the backstory of a superhero or a homily, plus lasers, on good versus evil.

See it, even if you think you don’t get on with sci-fi. Ignore that it is long for a contemporary movie. It doesn’t dawdle. Though you really should familiarise yourself with part I first.

The cinematography and direction are outstanding. There’s a harmony of techniques. Sound and visual effects, camerawork, juxtaposition and acting (all great, though Christopher Walken should have had a chance to play more than Christopher Walken).

It’s a filmy film. That’s crucial to making epic battle scenes seem just that: not a video game. Think Lawrence of Arabia, which came out two years before the novel. Not only literally in its majestic desertscapes. Consider the iconic assault led by Peter O’Toole of lightly armed Arabs on horse and camel against a technologically superior armoured train.

The political themes that arise from that and from any half-decent Vietnam movie run through Herbert’s vision. Most critics have steered away from this aspect in March 2024. I wonder why.

A desert or jungle, subordinate to the big cities. A guerilla insurrection by a divided Bedouin-like society against an occupation designed to control an irreplaceable resource. The revolt shifts the universe’s centre of political gravity away from an empire in its ‘decline and fall’ phase and towards …

The ending here is different from the novel but, true to its themes, it is left open even as events are apparently decisive. It is not just that there is more to be told (thus a part III).

The great Arab medieval intellectual Ibn Khaldun developed a materialist, cyclical theory of history in which peripheries rose to take over decaying metropolises, only then to suffer the same fate. The film does not tell us if that is the inevitability. Instead, it raises profound questions about prescience (developed to a superhuman degree by the central character played by Timothée Chalamet), and choice. If you have visions and prophecies of the future, where is free will?

That is part of the splintering ‘coming of age’ crisis Chalamet conveys well as he is repelled from, yet drawn to, the role of charismatic leader explored through his relations with two women: his mother and his lover.

Are you predestined if you are given a story of the destination? It is a world-historic literary and frequent religious theme. Look at the witches in Macbeth and the path he chooses – or is it choice? Does belief create its own determinism?

Dune also has its own ‘witches’, the Bene Gesserit priestess caste. Their role is material (eugenicist), manipulative (‘advising’ worldly power), ideological (bending belief systems), yet still full of mystery as to the nature of the universe.

It is this world of clashing viewpoints, ‘of plots within plots’, that Villeneuve and the central actors have done a great job exploring in so far as that is possible on screen.

There are some missed opportunities from abandoning some characters and the odd wrong note. You need light and shade, and occasional light relief in a grand philosophical opera. But whether what I and much of the audience read as a reference to the Life of Brian was intentional or not, it didn’t work. Then there was the editing and perhaps the facial expression of the excellent Javier Bardem that summoned vividly to my mind a scene from Carry On Up the Khyber.

I accept that that is almost certainly my own peculiarity. Yet, though necessarily truncated on screen, there’s an awful lot in this saga upon which to find your own strong opinions.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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