The **** Must Flow: “Dune Part 2” and the Cult of Frank Herbert

A scene from Denis Villeneuve's "Dune Part 2".

Nothing screams dilettante more than Dune. A mere mention of Frank Herbert’s amateurism is enough to kill any conversation stone dead and infuriate the faithful. What follows is the usual pleading, the usual literary red-herrings about style, intention, politics and, last of all, art. Despite their protestations, people who like Dune don’t actually give a damn about art and what’s more, they resent those of us who do. So let’s repay them the favour.

If you don’t like Frank Herbert then you’re an elitist snob or some sort of fruit (by implication). That’s the thing now: egalitarian tastelessness. Why should you care about Dune? Because other people do—apparently, and often with a kind of religious zealotry reserved for the likes of Ayn Rand. Hell, even at her most table-thumping, Rand is a better prose stylist than Herbert the Hump.

I don’t care to get into the nitty-gritty of Dune and its lore. L. Ron Hubbard at least had a kind of Penthouse hilarity to his fiction. Comparatively, Dune suffers by dint of its own self-serious pretention. Ridiculous non-characters. Condescendingly naked historical allegory. Bullshit fake-orientalism. Someone obviously read Joseph Campbell and snorted a lot of coke.

For the longest time, Dune was thankfully a niche in the genre-fiction market. It had its fanatics, but overall, was seen as mere pulp trumpery. Various unsuccessful attempts to adapt the property for film and television also helped to create the impression that somehow the books were cursed. Everyone lost money, and their nerve trying to market this Marmite.

But then the whole thing snowballed. Jodorowsky’s Dune was catnip to the nerd imagination. The myth of the impossible adaptation. The Chilean surrealist pulling his beard. Salvador Dali demanding a million dollars to play Emperor of the Universe. Suddenly Dune had found a new audience on the Hypnosphere of YouTube and X-Twit. Video essays explicating the world-building (and demolishing) of Herbie the Love Worm.

Cue Denis Villeneuve—’it girl‘ of the TIFF circuit and professional Malik manqué. Blade Runner 2049 was the culmination of an upward failure that began with the bourgeois convulsions of A24 and the Genie Awards. The albatross of Dune rested comfortably around the neck of one who had made the ‘impossible’ sci-fi sequel.

And now, here we are at Dune Part 2. Critics and audiences seem to be in consensus as to the film’s merits: its one-upmanship and flair (stunningly photographed!). But I’m left with the same familiar and unmistakable coldness. True, Villeneuve has managed to sand off Herbert’s rougher edges—the more ludicrous bits of rhapsody. But it’s a bit like polishing a turd.

Some choice quotes:

Paul Atreides. You are your father’s son. You are my son. You are Duke Paul Atreides. Do you know who you are? You know who you are!

The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.

A great man doesn’t seek to lead; he is called to it.

Dreams are messages from the deep.

I trusted you completely, even when you walked in shadows.

[Repeated:] Desert power!

Oof. Is this science fiction or the Church of Latter-Day Saints? Even when delivered with the most tremulous, quivering sincerity, these lines have an ironic timbre. The phrasing is overwrought. The sentiments are trite. Would it be any less hilarious if it came from the mouths of Jordan Peterson or Andrew Tate or Russell Brand? Baby boomers cosplaying as Nietzsche on Twitch and Rumble.

Born to say ‘fuck off‘. Forced to say ‘I respect your opinion’. Spare me the lectures on elitism. Spare me the exegesis of yet another reactionary sci-fi author who thinks he’s putting the world to rights with wiff-waff. At least with H.P. Lovecraft you have the thrill of racist vitriol and stylistic extremity (I don’t buy this party line about him being a closet modernist). Herbert, for all his sociological watchmaking, is unable to match the complexity (and absurdity) of real-life colonialism. Realpolitik. It’s still a sword-and-sorcery romance for the unmodern.

But hey, I dig John Carter and Conan as much as the next guy. Sword fights are cool. Spaceships are cool. Exploding planets are cool. But then again—I could watch Star Wars for that shit, or better yet, Moorcock’s Runestaff. Does it go down easier with grease or gloss? Is this LARPery any less awkward for its grandiose style and bare-faced populism?

Paul Atreides looking worried in front of a bright desert sun in Denis Villeneuve's "Dune Part 2".
Paul Atreides’s deep blue eyes are supposed to be meaningful.

The answer in Nein. Simply listen to the cheesy soundtrack with its Godspeed-You fuzz guitars. It’s like an episode of kitchen nightmares with Gordon Ramsey. Why not a water horn? The Inception fanfare? All of it tells you exactly how to feel—and what to pay attention to. There’s no detail. There’s no room to think. Nuance takes a backseat to bombast and artificial panorama. The camera never goes anywhere unexpected or establishes a meaningful POV—the camera is never truly free to go anywhere. It’s an artistic, capitalistic death march. You can taste the money, but it won’t get you to heaven.

And for all the memes, there’s a conspicuous lack of throat-singing. Pasolini, this ain’t. Hans Zimmer, the reformed brostep producer is in his element here with a bunch of ponderous and portentous stuff to furnish with honks and womps. The film sounds pretentious even before you can see what’s going on.

More than once, I was reminded of the comedy show Xavier Renegade Angel. The absurdity. The irony and faux profundity. The laughable quotes like: ‘The prophecy is foretold’. A prophecy is that which is literally foretold!

And Timothy Chalamet. I want to like him but he can’t seem to do much except look pretty and a tad constipated. The hair stylist, in particular, really let him down on this one. He looks like a toy poodle in a wetsuit.

Zendaya and Javier Bardem actually seem to be trying, beneath their yards of couture and makeup. Zendaya is notable for being the only character who acts with warmth or humanity, whereas the rest allow no hint of an inner life or a believable sexual psychology. After all, sex, in Dune, is mostly an abstraction.

In the novel the Harkonen family were written as homosexual sissies, which was a useful tool for telling the audience they were evil. But that won’t fly these days, so instead the Harkonen are turned into mindless (and browless) psycho-killers dressed in Balenciaga. Despite merely being ciphers, the film wastes a lot of time attempting to convince us that these dudes are really, really nasty and bad and evil. Boo. Hiss. Gimme a break.

The overall effects are ropey at best. The sandworms and spaceships are well-rendered and photograph pleasingly. But the art direction lacks something, even as the dweebs line up to pay homage to its ‘minimalist-maximalism’ (what a meaningless phrase). Taste or style for Villeneuve is always presented as if it were the outcome of some sort of market research. They say there’s no accounting for taste but Villeneuve is a taste accountant. He’s banking on your swoons. The embarrassing exegesis and enthusiasm of middle class drop-outs.

Idiots will try and say that I’m missing the point. That Dune is alienating because it’s supposed to be alienating. That it has a point to prove. A moral message to illustrate.

Fuck you. I don’t need a stupid costume drama to teach me about the vagaries of good and evil. Yeah, it’s an unhappy ending, where political might is presented with a bad conscience, but that’s nothing less than the usual mental gymnastics of wealthy liberals trying and failing to say anything coherent about the world. That Paul is morally corrupt—that he chooses to lie and exploit and kill, as a means to revenge is arguably more outdated as a moral parable than Hamlet, even, who chooses to do nothing and yet somehow makes his situation worse.

Finally I don’t know what’s worse. The self-inflation of the Dune novels or their cynical, sleazy fans. Those reprobates churning out cute-ironic memes and spouting quotes like Mormon elders accosting the homeless. Could there be some sort of correlation between this and the rise of online reactionary bullshit? The striking ascendency of white liberal Islamic-chic, Christian evangelical Hasbara, trad-conservatism and involuntary-celibacy on social media spaces.

But hey, maybe Jewish Nazis like Ben Shapiro are simply misreading Dune. Right-wingers love to vulgarise Nietzsche, so why not Herbert? And so the arguments go. Think-pieces explicating media-literacy to an audience of illiterates and influencers. Roland Barthes dragged from his coffin to rescue Harry Potter from his author. Kanye West posing in a Burzum tee for Instagram. An orgy of recrimination and fake-cancellation as postmodern discourse.

Well, sometimes you just have to say it like it is. Dune and its media franchise is a gift to the casual and the bootlicker, who, too fat and too lazy for organized religion, surrenders himself instead to the cult of kitsch.

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