Dune pt 2…disappoints.

I should be amazed and frenetic – like so many others. But, honestly and strangely, part 2 of Villeneuve‘s restart of the Dune saga Herberts did not make me enthusiastic, bubbling or invigorated, but left me pensive, worried and disgusted. Not indifferent, but also not satisfied – certainly not swayed because I found it simply „cool“, like so many. [full spoilers ahead, WARNING] Privilege and entitlement gets transformed into a Jihad – and the protagonist – other than the usual interpretations and Villeneuve’s own affirmations – is not a blooming psychopath, but a calculated event, himself a victim of bigger powers and long planning. His mother and the Bene Gesserit are to blame, the politics in the shadows, not Paul in his youthful hubris. Villeneuve did not invent that plot, but he re-invented how it looks and how the story is balanced. And it‘s there, in the filmmaking and pacing where I direct my critique…

Don‘t get me wrong, this is epic cinema, big explosions, grandiose sound design (update: but no great music, even when paying for the contribution of veteran Hans Zimmer), wide desert shots, mostly great actors (update; maybe too many and with not enough space to shine) and built on essentially sci-fi lore. And still, something is off – very off. Specially in regard to the first installment which did not leave me as dazed and confused about if I like it, and which was woven with atmosphere and style – a Brutalist fever dream. I miss the fever, the foreboding in the quality in which he teased Paul‘s doom in the first film – in the second all the visions lack the kind of visual inspiration which made it such a joy to watch and which reminded me of some classics of the 70s and their psychotropic focus. All this is gone, now simple blue (detergent?) water is swirling, embryo cgi glancing and always the same bad cgi figurines writhing on dry dirt, which altogether are not really inspiring, if one wants to visualize the multifaceted gift of „the Sight“.

What bothered me here throughout the film was, that it felt uninspired, that it stuck to people and outdoor shots, and reduced the design or designed style to a minimum, so that it works as a background, but not as an artwork. The desert is already theres, no one has to design it. That included the costumes, featuring these cheap colour scarfs as some dots of „difference of tribes“ and a half-rip off of Arabic designs, maybe in some jewellery but not really. Were they afraid to be accused of cultural appropriation? The „Mahdi“ idea (Arabic: ٱلْمَهْدِيّ, romanized: al-Mahdī, literally: ‘the Guided’) is a concept of Islamic eschatology and is an historical Islamic prophecy with a long list of claimants through the centuries and is said to lead the Muslims to rule the entire world at the end of time. Last in 2006, Dia Abdul Zahra Kadim claimed to be Mahdi and he and his Soldiers of Heaven have been wiped out by US and Iraqui military forces in the Battle of Najaf in Iraq. If you can appropriate that, don’t be sensitive with the rest.

As most of the visuals were about the Fremen in part 2, their style comes under scrutiny, which is previsible. Not much of surprise there, even though there would be a rich back catalogue to draw from. Not like some conniving Orientalist colonizer of style, but with reverence. Hire Arabic designers, re-design with dignity and knowledge of the past. Did they change the designs of the still suits in the mean time? They look now often thin and made of army cloth from the 80s, more combat gear from Earth than ingenious sweat-trapping and pumping mechanical devices. Only the Bene Gesserit of the South had some dignity in their colourful robes and basket heads, veils and face chains. No re-invention of our rich history of desert people designs here, just some scripture on the face (and probably the same on all the scripted bricks). Why the hell they use a featureless clear-glass flask like from a chemical lab for the most holy water, and not something ornamental, ceremonial, beautifully crafted? The transport basket for the Revered Mother I liked, that had a handicraft quality and an aerodynamic design. I liked the fight scene with Feyd as well, to say something positive, very fast paced and well-edited slashing and slicing against each other, as the culmination of the action. The war itself was big scale but also so easy as mopping up the floor with the Sardaukar. And then they jump into ships they have never flown before and engage in orbital battle, a bunch of knife wielding infantry men from the desert? Really, they learn that in no time as well, how to fly and fight in a spaceship?

Then there are gross underestimated of the intelligence of the viewer: they fly 3 nuclear missiles past the Emperor of the galaxy’s mothership and no one shoots them immediately down with lasers, laser guided surface-to air missiles or a barrage of flak of all sorts and calibres? What are these Sardaukar legions doing out there – camping? -, while somebody is flying nukes over their heads? In the book the nuclear warheads get positioned and detonated, so that flashy manoeuvre is Villeneuves idea.

The black & white plastic dream of Giedi Prime might have it merits to underline contrasts and help hiding the cgi of hundred thousands copied bots cheering and waving their fists like lunatics, but it came across cartoonish – and left out all the work to show us something else of the planet, too. The interior shots with Feyd-Rauta chasing Lady Margot Fenring are beautiful and bask in some gigeresque hints, but that‘s it. So much of sci-fi hardest work is to invent a culture, a style, architecture, materials for making a film, a story believable, a place plausible and iconic. If one does not succeed in showing a rich world on an alien planet, we are in the lows of a Star Trek episode, when they get lazy or run out of ideas and recycle backdrops of other productions (Western town, anyone, or Chicago 1930?). Italian designer and architect Carlo Scarpa lends an hand when they shoot inside of his famous tomb architecture near Asolo in Veneto, Italy. The iconic site of Tomba Brion is well used „as it is“ and shows great respect for him and his genious of this designer, who seems to be „fresh“ enough to envision believable future sci-fi architecture already in between 1968-1978, for Villeneuve. Thank you, Carlo Scarpa, Imperial quality stamp. But where is something like this coming from his own design team?

The sphere of the Emperor – as visually clever, it also feels like a lazy design. Another sphere. No new spaceship design, no Guild ships, no Guild at all – that is disappointing for me as a sci-fi fan. Spice and the navigators of the Guild using it, alas, depending on it, to transport people, military and goods through the galaxy, do not seem to matter in this context. And no Mentat matching what Paul can do with his newly acquired prescience – its a shame to leave someone like Thufir Hawat out of the picture, when the book does bring him back.

There is no space travel – the reason why spice is so important in that universe, but a lot of walking through the sand and sitting on rocks. Not even the attack fleet of the allied forces of the old houses is shown. It seems that he sacrificed all the world-building for the character building of Paul and Chani, the love birds. Well, that worked better for Chani, than for Paul. Zendaya was becoming the most reasonable, relatable and „awake“ character next to Bardem’s Stilgar and truly catches the empathy of the audience, because in the end she and her love/dream is outmanoeuvered by her boyfriend.

He is set on a path to become a Messiah, a Prophet and all-powerful figure, and Villeneuve has not chosen it – Frank Herbert has in his novels. But here is the problem – we are not in the 50s anymore, where this was a fresh sci-fi idea, we are struggling with the rise of populism, false prophets, „strong men“, right wing agendas burning down to „we against them“ and have seen the rise and crushing of the Arabic Spring (which was purposefully anti-fundamentalist), ISIS/DAESH, the Syrian civil war, the festering conflict in the Middle East, Yemen with the Houthi rebellion now menacing shipping international routes – like Paul plays to threaten the flow/trade of spice/melange. And here we have an entitled, white Aristocrat kid from another planet who transforms politics into a Jihad – a holy war…all built on manipulating the fundamentalist masses on a desert planet with storytelling and psychological tricks. He is not a religious figure – he is honed and groomed by his family for a role, to keep in power and grab power with the help of a prophesy they seeded. And a lot of people die for this – a lot.

That he really becomes a seer in the course of it, the Kwisatz Haderach, and may look into the future is the cross he has to carry, his choice, not a kind of absolution for all the crimes committed in his name. It does not make him holy or more understandable in his megalomanic psychosis to fullfil his fate, a psychosis planted by training by his mother one can say. None of this is clear in Villeneuves vision – but important to see, if one does not want to loose the societal picture of what systems are at play here – and that is it NOT one person. Power corrupts, that is clear.

How he treats his love Chani on that way of self-inflicted suffering is telling, as she gets mistreated in front of everybody, discarded in favour of galactic power. Not nice, and he could have talked to her earlier, not serving the news hot/cold in the moment, while engaging the Emperor. Not very respectful. All this is Villeneuves fault, because he compresses the 5 years till the attack of the Fremen into a few months and there are a lot of small details (the birth of Alia) and learnings missing to build up to him embracing his role as a religious leader.

Part 2 raises the question if we want to actually see something like this, the rise of a demagogue, a bloody dictator, a brutal Emperor like in Roman times, receiving godlike devotion – a person worse than Baron Harkonnen in the end…who was just a nice boy some years ago.

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