Dune 2 Sucks

If there is a poster child for the Hollywood beast and its relationship to the audience, it is Dune 2. It’s a movie that hoodwinked (seemingly) everyone besides myself, a downgrade from the average part 1 in every respect, and a movie that, like so many other sequels, is a kind of hate letter to the source and to its fans, and yet the audience excuses its failings (of the story variety) because it has a few pretty sets and some good (monochrome) VFX.

 Make no mistake, there are great things about Dune Part 2, just like with the first movie. Its production is generally top-notch, with a strong visual style and very effective sound design in many places (though I did tire of the sub-bass farts of every large machine by the end). It is nearly devoid of color, but that produces a dream-like, almost somnial quality to its visuals. All the sets are spartan in the extreme. Taken on its own, it is bizarre and gives the impression that none of the characters own anything. However, that lack of detail matches the environments outside, which are likewise devoid of prominence or beauty. The whole thing plays like a moving impressionistic painting but austere, like some post-romantic scenes of scenery or waves.

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The score taken on its own is abysmal, though slightly better than the atrocity that Zimmer shat out for part 1, and yet, like in the first movie, it works well in context. It is served to us with the visual space, within the visual space, and beneath it. It is noise, atmosphere, added to the noise of the desert and its swirling endless yellow, and withdraws for the cool exteriors.

There is an integration to the entire audiovisual experience so that all its parts, even if flawed in isolation, work together to improve the whole. In fact, I cannot think of a movie besides Star Wars with a better total harmonious and wholistic mixture of the production elements directed toward affecting the audience. It’s an odd piece – each part bad on its own terms, yet the whole is somehow great.

Unfortunately, this feeling does not hold through the entire movie because of a variety of factors, most importantly, the story, which interrupts it.

Dune Part 2 suffers from even worse casting than Part 1, mostly because the character of Chani, Paul’s lover, is actually present and intimated by the ever-scowling and never-attractive figure of Zendaya. Timothy Chalumet, as Paul, is the poorer casting choice only because he is playing the protagonist, and the story is about a charismatic and heroic figure. While Chalumet might be good in another project, his effeminate demeanor and high whispery voice are non-starters for the ascendant Pual Atreides (though, at least with this movie, I could properly hear him). Zendaya might be good in a sitcom; she cannot pull off serious delivery and instead presents as melodramatic.

The miscasting of these two roles goes beyond the roles themselves, as the characters they are portraying are supposed to be romantically involved. Chalumet and Zendaya have all the on-screen chemistry of a cat and a dog locked in a room without furniture. In fact, I am reminded of many a high-school or college production of Shakespeare (you know, The Play), both in the bad performance and horribly modern-urban affect, but also with the fact that the actors are gay. There is simply nothing there to work with. They come off as hating one another, as Chani spends most of the movie disapproving of Paul’s every decision, only coming into contact with him after the midpoint to save his life in an obnoxiously contrived way. This is a fault of the bad writing as much as the bad acting, but one cannot underestimate the negative power of the revolting on-screen interactions between the two actors. It came close to spoiling the entire movie, and for some viewers who are more affected by such things, it no doubt will.

It came close to spoiling it but did not deliver the fatal blow. What did murder the movie is the terrible writing beyond those two characters, and the heart of the bad writing is the fact that Dune 2, so much more than the first part, is an adaptation oblivious to, or even in rebellion against, its source.

The main culprit (but not the only one) is the modern Hollywood man’s cynicism towards religion, which is a major problem as nearly every character in the book is motivated on some level by their religious beliefs, whether they are from Dune or not. The only main character in Dune Part 2 who sincerely holds any religious belief is Stilgar, and he is portrayed more like a madman than a zealot. He’s a caricature of a devout Muslim or Eastern Christian. Paul and his mother intend to use the Fremen and their belief in a messiah to exact revenge; Chani never believes any of it and thus is a stand-in for the filmmakers and their moral objections to Muad’dib, the great man of history, though she never stops helping him and never walks away until the end (So much for Children of Dune on the big screen, I suppose). She also never starts believing, and the contrived “savior” scene she is shoved into (flying an Ornithopter – from where?) exists solely to undercut the idea that there could ever be anything real to a prophecy or to God. It’s insulting.

All of this ruins the immersion that the audiovisual parts of the film set up. It plays like a commentary within a work of a deconstructive nature, a parody being played off as the real thing, like Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Like that film and the 40k universe (or the character of Rorschach in Watchmen), Villeneuve does not want the audience to like Paul, appreciate his perspective, or take joy in his victories. We are supposed to feel the way Chani feels about him. Cynically, Villeneuve apparently passed off this vandalism as somehow true to Frank Herbert’s vision because he reportedly said the same thing about people liking Paul too much. Herbert could have edited his book if he really was upset about readers liking Paul, but he didn’t really need to because he wrote five more books that anyone could read.

Destroying the plot of Dune to take into account Dune Messiah, etc., is like turning Jason and the Argonauts into a cynical deconstructive hit piece because of he dumps his witch wife in Medea. We should hate Jason because he dumps Medea, so make sure Medea points out how awful he is throughout the movie. Nobody should like Jason!

There are other major technical considerations with the story that hold back not just this movie but the duology. Despite a nearly 6-hour total runtime, the Dune movies fail to do basic exposition on the setting. Without reading the books or watching a previous adaptation, the audience has no idea what the “spice” does or why everyone cares so much about it. The spacing guild is a set of costumed cameos (if that), CHOAM is absent, mentats are barely present (but they look cool, I guess), and the politics of the galaxy are touched in only the most basic way. The Butlerian Jihad, the Orange-Catholic bible, all the background explaining why anything is the way it is… it is all absent. The relationship between the worms and the spice is missing. The effects of spice on evolution, mutation, or prescience, or the length of life are never dealt with. “The spice must flow” is all you get.

This is like remaking Star Wars, where all the characters are trying to destroy the Death Star, but you are never told or shown what it can do.

 I’ve heard this confusion regarding Melange from several people who were new to the franchise, but for fans of the books, etc., you might miss it in all the sound and fury. Why anybody cares about Arrakis is totally opaque. All of the flavor of the setting is absent and made as monochromatic as the film’s color palette. David Lynch might have considered his adaptation a failure, but he did not fail to show the depth of the setting and explain why Melange is so special, nor to explain how politics set up Duke Leto and what the Spacing Guild is. At the same time, Villeneuve cooks up all kinds of alternate explanations for character motivations, like Walken’s emperor saying he killed Paul’s father because he was weak and ruled with his heart. Besides being incorrect or perhaps intentionally facetious at a terrible moment, it’s also just a lazy, silly line. He could have finally explained the conflict! Alas, we get nothing.

All of this rebellious, deconstructive adaptation culminates in a non-resolution in the final act. Yes, Paul succeeds for a moment, but then Chani runs away, bitter that the great man fulfilled his destiny, and Paul sends the Fremen to attack all the great houses (who have somehow all come into orbit—how?). This is not a resolution. It is an anti-resolution.

I must point out, though, that I perversely liked this conclusion in context. Paul boots his annoying, glowering girlfriend so he can marry a blonde princess and then sends his army out to kill his enemies. Brutal—and I’m sure Villeneuve would not like that anyone enjoyed the white hero choosing a white girl over a mulatto and initiating a violent 40k-style crusade in the final scene. In his bid to make you hate Paul, you end up liking him. He turned Paul into the emperor of mankind!

There are other strange additions, such as family atomics (which are barely mentioned in later books). Where did these come from to get stashed on Arrakis when the Atreides family just got there? Why add this in when, in the new ending to the movie, Paul never even considers using them to destroy the spice (they actually would not destroy the spice, fans know)? My best guess is so that Paul could say, “He who can destroy a thing controls a thing,” or some such.

We spend a great deal of time on Geddi Prime, which, while visually interesting (now truly monochromatic, rather than just yellow), is still an addition, and one added to account for screenwriting story algebra. Feyd-Ratha fights Paul in the final scene, so we need to establish him ahead of time to make sure the audience knows he’s a very bad guy and a real threat. Peter Jackson did something similar with one of the Uruk-hai in Fellowship of the Ring. Geddi-Prime might be the coolest part of the movie, perhaps because it was original, and it gives us a real sense of the wickedness of the Harkonnens, which, of course, heightens the revelation that Jessica and Paul are related to the Duke.

Dune Part 2 is a mixed bag: a high-dollar, high-vision production that is at once more than the sum of its parts (in the audiovisual department) and less than the sum of its parts due to the refusal of the filmmaker to let the source material speak for itself while ejecting its most interesting premises. It comes off as contemptuous. It’s a film for fans but in the worst possible way. Rather than telling the story and letting the audience consider its implications, Villeneuve tosses out the story to ensure people come to the right conclusions. It is obsessed with making sure you don’t think the wrong things, to the point where it vandalizes the source and yet still unintentionally undercuts itself by making Paul into Mega-Sulla or Super-Caesar.

It’s hard not to feel sad about the reaction to the movie. It is evidence for my own cynical hypothesis that fans of books are most interested in “seeing” their favorite worlds “come to life” rather than being interested in the stories themselves. If you have enough cool ship designs and some big explosions, they will forgive an awful lot. Such is life in the 21st century, I suppose.

I will end this essay by mentioning a few things about the books. First, it is a fine time to read Dune. Maybe the visuals from the movies will inspire you, and you may conclude what I have about the universe: it is not adaptable. There is too much philosophy, religion, and politics in it to quickly show in the space of a movie.

Second, consider stopping after the first book. I do enjoy several others, especially Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune, but they are short of the literary glory of the first book. Just as importantly, they undo Paul Atreides. So when you get to that last scene, and Paul has killed Feyd, made the emperor his servant, set out his legacy with his future wife (the princess) and his concubine (Chani), and given Gurney his just rewards for loyalty, consider leaving the universe there, with a great victory over evil and a hero beating every obstacle to avenge his family. It is the high-water mark of the series.

I will provide a “by the numbers” breakdown later.

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