Following on from

a review of Dune Part 2.

Cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky spent millions in the 1970s planning a screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic 1965 science-fiction novel Dune. Featuring a cast to include Salvador Dalí, Gloria Swanson, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and David Carradine; with music by Pink Floyd and set designs by artists Moebius and H.R. Giger (whose unused designs would inform Ridley Scott’s Alien), the ill-fated Dune is probably the most famous film never made and is itself the subject of the fascinating documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), which traced the mad ambition and impact of that sci-fi vision.

Alejandro Jodorowsky shows one of his story board books, which he gave to Hollywood executives. Image source: Twitter

Had Jodorowsky found the funding and completed his film for the big screen, he might have, as he intended, melted people’s minds.  Instead, he handed his giant storyboard album for Dune to Hollywood in the vain effort to secure backing, only to find his designs, costumes and ideas subsequently filched for decades for everything from Alien to Star Wars. Jodorowsky’s inspiration have informed various attempts to film Dune – including David Lynch’s extraordinary effort in 1984, which is widely panned but worth revisiting, despite its many ludicrous elements.

People are rediscovering the joys of Lynch’s Dune 40 years after it was made. Image source: Twitter

Now, fifty years after Jodorowsky planned to ‘change humanity’ with his epic fever dream of that novel (see Holy Mountain if you want to see what Jodorowsky was capable of), we have Denis Villeneuve’s restaging of a twenty-year failed war in the Middle East. We get the thrill of an Apache helicopter cockpit view swerving to avoid shoulder-launched rockets on its way back to Talal airbase after defending the US occupied Iraqi oil rigs, with gladiator fights thrown in.

Hollywood needs a more recognisable, predictable product than Jodorowsky or Lynch could offer and Villeneuve’s Dune 2 has bowled over critics and audiences alike with its stunning special effects, slick, well-handled, tumble-drier load of religious myths, and safely distant (in a galaxy far, far away) retelling of the west’s post-Iraq collective nightmares. As with most big budget epics today, it also includes some quite gruesome violence and I remain puzzled that films like this—heavy on the sadism, light on the sex – are rated 12A. Just compare the Dune films to The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, which got an X (18) certificate in the 70s, to see how much hotter the water around the frog is these days.

Dune is a cool, smooth, genre milk shake with bits of Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars – the Geonosian arena from Attack of the Clones, Jabba the Huttish/Kurtz-like bad guy, the whole ‘chosen’one’—you are my brother, sister, and cousin Hero with a Thousand Faces schtick. But above all, it is twenty years of a failed ‘War on Terror’ distilled into Hollywood wisdom (don’t mess with the natives – their insurrection will overwhelm you) to pass onto the next generation to ignore.

The film, like Herbert’s book, shows clear inspiration from Islamic culture and the long history of Holy Wars or Jihad. According to an article in The New Yorker, the phrase “Long live the fighters” in Dune is written as “Ya hya chouhada,” a reference to a celebratory chant from the Algerian war of independence, which Herbert transliterated from Frenchified Arabic

Image source: Twitter

And the heavy debt to Arabic culture is evident throughout, for instance, in the made-up language, the costumes, and the Berber and North African style face tattoos. Furvah Shah writing in Cosmopolitan expressed her sense that Arabic culture was being erased whilst re-enacted:

“From the use of beads and prostration in prayers by the Fremen, to the almost-Arabic language, phrases pulled from religious texts and the wearing of veils, it felt like ‘Dune’ takes a heavy amount of inspiration from Islam, Middle Eastern and North African cultures yet simultaneously erases us from screen”.

Source: Twitter

Image source: Twitter

Others have also noted that almost no Arab actors have made it into the cast (Arab actors in Hollywood are usually cast as villains) and that the film’s cultural appropriation seemingly takes place as an exotic, orientalist backdrop to the entertainment. Because it should be remembered that this is entertainment, not an unsettling allegory for the brutal resource wars that have accelerated in the twenty-first century and caused so much chaos and bloodshed in the oil rich territories of the Middle East.

After seeing the trailer for Dune in 2020, Jodorowsky said: It’s very well done,” […] “We can see that it is industrial cinema, that there is a lot of money, and that it was very expensive. But if it was very expensive, it must pay in proportion. And that is the problem: There are no surprises. The form is identical to what is done everywhere. The shape of it, the lighting, the acting, it’s all predictable.”

Industrial cinema, unlike auteur cinema, prioritises profit. Auteur director Jodorowsky added: “Industrial cinema promotes entertainment, it is a show that is not intended to change humanity or society.”

And as entertainment, Dune 2 works. The actors are superb (Zendaya is beautiful and has halogen lamp screen presence) and the film will probably make you cry with its doomed romance—an engine for so many Hollywood classics.

But to me, the film felt long. Oddly, it felt longer than Dune 1, which I had watched on telly and while Dune 2 is ten minutes longer, I may have resented the loud, booming speakers at the IMAX cinema I saw it in, especially after enduring 20 minutes of advertisements and inane trailers. Incidentally, not one of those films looked remotely interesting—all loud, noisy, stupid action films, which Dune is not. Not stupid anyway

You need 24 hours to get distance on that kind of spectacle. The worms, the battle sequences, and the use of landscape were fabulous, and there is a lot to admire in the film, including the music, editing, acting, and direction. And yet, there was a poster for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in the hall outside the Swindon Imax being reshown for its twenty-fifth anniversary. Now that was a film. Yes, Jah Jah Bunks was intolerable, but I remember so many scenes that made my heart race when it came out because they were unique. Dune 2, by contrast, feels like a very accomplished, very watchable retelling rather than an original classic at this stage.

A blogger on The Times of Israel notes the jihad inspiration in Dune. Image source: Twitter

Noting lack of Arab representation, likely to provoke flak in culture war. Image source: Twitter

Is this Battle for Algiers or Dune? Image source: Twitter

Cultural appropriation? Moi? Image source: Twitter

Masterpieces like No Country for Old Men, A Prophet, Twelve Years a Slave, A Bridge Too Far, The Battle of Britain, Casablanca, The Best Years of our Lives, Come and See, The Empire Strikes Back, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather etc leave you shaken and sweaty.  Talking of The Godfather 1 and 2 (not the execrable 3), I’m waiting to see if Francis Ford Coppola can pull off a late triumph with Megalopolis. I really hope he does, as he’s not done anything great since his split with his wife Eleanor (who made the superb Hearts of Darkness) and who died recently.

We shall see. I’ll watch Dune 3 at the cinema when it comes out, but I won’t be watching the first two again for a long while. What is really interesting to me is why any given film really gets under anyone’s skin. That’s a much more complex and interesting question than ‘do you think a film is great or not’.

What is your take on Dune 2? Did it leave you shaken, sweaty, or moved to tears? What might make it a contemporary classic, as many critics have argued?

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