Firstly, for the optimal reader experience, this article should be perused on high-quality parchment, in a dry, air-conditioned room, over a glass of chardonnay, with a jazz quartet playing softly in the corridor outside. Failing that, you can read it off your phone on the back seat of a moving Ford Fiesta. But that’s on you. You’ll be ignoring the expressed wishes of the creative genius behind this article.
As a writer, I didn't used to be so precious about these things. But now I'm taking my cues from Denis Villeneuve, the visionary director behind the sci-fi blockbuster Dune. As the pandemic grinds on inexorably, he advised the public to see his film in theatres, saying that to watch it on a smaller screen would be like "driving a speedboat in your bathtub".
Biddable as ever, I heeded his advice – albeit waiting for more than a month after the film’s release, so that the theatre would be almost empty when we saw it.
We parked the car, stood in line and bought the tickets off a greasy communal touchscreen with no hand sanitiser in sight.
I had to key in my name, my email address and phone number to complete the transaction. The machine initially told me that I had an invalid name. The problem turned out to be that I had only imputed my first name. They needed both my first name and surname.
At the time, I made a joke about Zendaya being prohibited from seeing her own film. But having since seen Dune, I’d say she barely gets much of a look in onscreen either. I had more lines of dialogue negotiating the purchase of two bags of popcorn than Zendaya had in the two-and-a-half hours it took Villeneuve to half tell this epic tale.
Rebecca Ferguson, who carries much of this film, despite barely figuring in its promotion, and despite being cast as mother to an actor 12 years her junior, has legitimate grounds for complaint.
My problem with Dune wasn't that it is too dark and dystopian. My problem is that it wasn't dystopian enough
Don’t get me wrong. Dune is a good film. Timothée Chalamet brings his usual trainee barista vibes to the role of crown prince Paul Atreides. But I might not have been in the right head space to enjoy it properly. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could have watched this movie on my laptop, three drinks in, while ironing a shirt, and still achieved the same end result: I got the gist of it. No more.
Dune takes place on Arrakis, a hellish desert planet which differs from our own chiefly in that, on Arrakis, people look at Timothée Chalamet and see a mind powerful enough to bridge space and time; a singular leader who can deliver an oppressed people from centuries of bondage. Whereas on planet Earth, I tend to look at him and think “I’m pretty sure I ordered an Americano off that gobshite 15 minutes ago . . . Where’s my Americano, Timothée!?”
My problem with Dune wasn’t that it is too dark and dystopian. My problem is that it wasn’t dystopian enough. C’mon Denis, we’re looking for a little escapism here.
When I saw the film, I’d just spent three days working in Covid-19 testing. We’re in the second winter of this pandemic. And since the clocks went back, we’ve been finishing up each night in total darkness. So the queue of cars arriving appears to stretch back without end: which may be an apt metaphor.
Very often the drivers, who are all potential carriers of the virus, are not wearing the masks we provided them with at the gate. It’s under their chin, or in their handbag or in the glove compartment. Or they’re wearing the mask, but they remove it without warning as they lean in to speak to us. Say what you want about Fremen tribal fighters. They seem a pretty humourless bunch. But at least they’ve mastered the art of wearing a feckin’ mask. It’s really not that difficult.
Messages from the deep
In Dune, the main issue facing Timothée Chalamet’s character is that he’s troubled by disturbing dreams he’s been having. Dreams, we are told in the film’s opening caption, are messages from the deep. Well, let’s look at my own recent messages from the deep first, to establish a baseline for comparison.
Recently, I’ve had the classic stress dream where all my teeth fall out. Except I’ve had it so many times now, I once reassured people “relax, it’s just a dream. My teeth are fine.” Another time, I dreamt that my late father, who died 15 years ago, was sitting at my kitchen table. He asked for my help finishing a Sudoku puzzle. I looked at it and said “That’s a really simple puzzle, Daddy. How can you not figure it out?” Then he laughed so hard he fell off the chair.
So, you know, pretty cut and dried stuff – the product of an uncluttered mind.
Meanwhile, what's Timothée been dreaming about? In Timothée's dreams, he's making out with Zendaya. That's a bit of a head-scratcher. I really wouldn't hazard to guess what's going on there. We might have to ask Charlotte Rampling to put on a widowed beekeeper costume, see if she can untangle that web of mystery.
To be fair, I could at least follow the plot of Dune. Which is more than can be said for the other film I’ve seen in the cinema since restrictions were lifted: Boss Baby 2. And, of course, you could argue that I’m missing out on a lot of the texture and the richness of the narrative, because I’m not sufficiently versed in the mythology. That’s a fair point: I had not previously seen Boss Baby 1.
But at least it provided a little bit of escapism, a little bit of respite. Not for myself, necessarily. Or even for my nieces and nephew who accompanied me. But for their parents. Which has to count for something.