December 2021 – January 2022

Arts & Letters

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

By Shane Danielsen
Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic

One could write a long piece about film audiences’ relationship to power. Not spectacle – though those two things are frequently aligned – but to demonstrations of capability untethered to consequence, and what has come to be known, in the pillowy doublespeak of social media, as “agency”.

The cowboy with his pistol, riding slowly into town. The fighter pilot at the controls of his jet, or Dominic Toretto behind the wheel of his Dodge Charger. These archetypes are enduring, and reinforce the widely held belief that movies are about doing, not being.

They’re also remarkably basic solutions to complicated problems, a tendency that dates from 1903 and the opening seconds of The Great Train Robbery, when actor Justus D. Barnes fired a six-shooter straight at the viewer, and persists to this day. Your superhero “saga” may feint at complex moral dilemmas; it might touch upon themes of colonialism or inclusion or toxic masculinity. But at the end of the day, every conflict it depicts is stuck firmly in the physical realm, to be resolved with a costumed slugfest straight out of pro wrestling.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand their appeal. We typically go to the pictures to find the things we’re lacking in our everyday lives – hence the popularity of screwball comedies about the rich and indolent during the Depression, when many theatregoers could scarcely afford to eat. Right now, people feel powerless: battered by the pandemic, baffled by competing realities on Facebook and Twitter. They’re isolated and afraid. In such a world, there’s comfort to be had in the rigid certainties of genre storytelling, and definitive displays of force. Thanos is bad, Iron Man’s a hero. Simple.

And now it’s Christmas. Blockbuster season! And after two fallow years, we have two hugely expensive examples of the form. Both films are, ostensibly at least, about power and its uses. But both have complicated and even contradictory takes on the subject that render them noteworthy, above and beyond their inherent brand appeal.

The first thing to say about Dune is that you should see it – it’s the best thing to come out of Hollywood this year, and the finest sci-fi film since director Denis Villeneuve’s own Arrival, back in 2016. The second thing is that you should do so in a cinema – ideally on as big a screen as your local multiplex will allow, and at full volume, the better to appreciate both the scale of the storytelling and its astonishing craft. It’s a powerfully immersive sensory experience – vast and tumultuous, yet also nuanced, hypnotic and surprising. It fuses grandeur of scale with a seriousness of purpose, to create an entire, meticulously detailed world. You can lose yourself in it.

The other thing to note is that it’s not a complete story. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel ran, in its original edition, to 412 closely typeset pages, packed with branching narratives and fastidious world-building. The challenge of rendering this opus successfully onscreen defeated both David Lynch (whose sensibility, in fairness, was never a good match for the material) and Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose massive 1975 adaptation – starring Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí! – fell apart in pre-production.

Cautioned by these failures, Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts have opted to adapt only half the novel, with the concluding instalment conditional upon the commercial fortunes of the first. (In fact, Warner Bros. green-lit the second film a week after this one’s US release.) A calculated gamble, it nevertheless allowed the filmmakers to take their time and thereby do justice to Herbert’s world – its enormous array of characters, its accreted history and politics. Villeneuve spoke of wanting to make a Star Wars for adults, and that’s precisely what he’s crafted here: a brooding space opera, rich with its own mythology and lore, in a register that hews rather more closely to the arthouse than the multiplex.

The plot, at least, is simple enough. It is the year 10191. At the behest of the Emperor, House Atreides accepts stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, otherwise known as Dune, an inhospitable world that happens to be the sole source of melange, or “spice”, the rarest commodity in the universe. A drug capable of prolonging life and unlocking latent cognitive abilities, melange also enables interstellar travel, since without its influence navigators are incapable of guiding their ships safely through warp space.

But in taking control of Arrakis, the Atreides displace their long-time enemies the Harkonnens, a cruel race of leather-clad fascists outfitted in what looks like the fall–winter collection from Hellraiser. (Watching, you may find yourself wondering how much of this is nature and how much nurture. The Atreides hail from Caladan, a planet that resembles a Scottish glen, and are refined, tolerant and enlightened. The Harkonnens, by contrast, live on Giedi Prime, a stygian hellhole that looks like the sex-dungeons at Berghain, and conduct themselves accordingly.)

For almost a century, House Harkonnen has amassed a fortune mining spice – all the while brutally subjugating the local population, desert-warriors known as Fremen – and it’s not at all happy about surrendering its concession. Meanwhile, young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), heir to his family’s fiefdom, has experienced recurring dreams of a young Fremen woman (Zendaya), and has become convinced that his fate is somehow entwined with hers. When Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) moves to reclaim Arrakis, Paul finds himself thrust abruptly into his own prophetic visions.

I’ve heard people complain about a lack of action in this Dune – that it’s all set-up and no pay-off. To co-opt a line commonly hurled at critics, I can only wonder if we were watching the same film. Place-setting there undoubtedly is: the entire first hour is devoted to it, though it feels no less compelling for that. But thereafter matters escalate swiftly and decisively, climaxing in an ambush of staggering scale and spectacle. It ends on something of a dying fall, admittedly. But it also whets the appetite for what’s to come.

What’s most interesting about Herbert’s novel – and is preserved in this adaptation – is how comprehensively it subverts the idea of “the chosen one”, the trope that has powered seemingly every sci-fi/fantasy franchise of the past 40 years. As the film opens, Paul feels trapped by his birthright, the obligation to succeed his father, Leto (Oscar Isaac), as the head of House Atreides. But in fact his purpose is both greater than that, and far stranger: the culmination of a generations-long breeding program devised and overseen by the Bene Gesserit, a secretive matriarchal order operating in the shadows of the Imperium, to which his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), belongs.

Paul’s importance, in other words, is not the playing-out of some mysterious and ineluctable destiny – it’s simply eugenics. And his response to this discovery makes him an unusually conflicted protagonist, and a fascinating one. Just whose purposes, in the end, is he serving?

Unsurprisingly, the film’s technical contributions are immaculate, from Greig Fraser’s shadowy, desaturated cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s dissonant score (Herr Zimmer, for once, is not phoning it in), to long-time Villeneuve collaborator Patrice Vermette’s extraordinary production design, which taps the brutalist aesthetic of such architects as Ernő Goldfinger to create starships of raw concrete, hanging perfectly still in space, and immense, bunker-like interiors. There’s a monumental quality to these compositions, but also an appreciable mass and texture, a gritty, lived-in feeling that belies their status as CGI creations. (To see the same kind of thing done very, very badly, look at Apple TV’s recent adaptation of another sci-fi classic, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.)

A nonpareil visual stylist, Villeneuve also directs actors extremely well, and here he’s assembled some of the most charismatic male stars working right now: Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem. Even Chalamet is good, his little-emo-bitch thing fully in service to the character of Paul – who at this stage, at least, is a bit of a pill. But the film’s MVP is Rebecca Ferguson, the Swedish-British actor who came to international attention in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation in 2015, and who’s only become more impressive since. Both a commanding presence and superb reactive performer, she anchors the palace intrigues in maternal concern, and also something else: a kind of contained menace. You never quite know whose side she’s on.

One would think, as a franchise progresses, that it would become more settled and homogenous – yet the James Bond films have always been almost comically uneven, both in concept and execution. Perhaps it’s a British thing: that muddle-headed, “gifted amateur” sort of attitude. (Though in fairness Star Wars has hardly been run any better.)

No Time To Die, it gives me no pleasure to report, is one of the series’ middling entries. Neither as gripping as Skyfall nor as sloppy as Quantum of Solace, it’s mostly efficient, occasionally thrilling, yet ultimately unsatisfying, its best moments hinting at the better, sharper film it might have been. Written by series mainstays Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, then punched-up by Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, it’s directed and co-scripted by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the first American to helm a Bond flick. As expected from the director of Sin Nombre, he brings a bruising intensity to the fight scenes, even as he struggles slightly with the interpersonal elements.

It’s also Daniel Craig’s last go-round, his farewell to the role that elevated him from arthouse player to global superstar. And while I admire the producers’ desire, over the course of his tenure, to create a vast, overarching narrative, with each new instalment serving to both clarify and complicate the ones that preceded it, I just wish they’d taken a little more care with its construction. The last film, Spectre, showed distinct signs of strain: its star seemed either exhausted or pissed off (and occasionally both); gadgets had begun to creep back in, undermining the tough, pub-brawler realism Craig brought to the role; and the action cycled through a succession of exotic locales – Mexico City, Rome, Tangier – without ever finding a rhythm or a purpose.

Also, like this one, Spectre had a villain problem. As Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Christoph Waltz was badly miscast. Not just physically wrong for the part (too small, too nervy, his voice too reedy), Waltz projects precisely zero menace; this supposed global super-villain was about as threatening as a car alarm. He reappears in No Time To Die, no more intimidating than before, but the black hat this time is worn by Rami Malek as Lyutsifer Safin, a kind of evil horticulturist. And if that phrase makes you giggle, then you may begin to understand the issue here.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that the two best films of the Craig era, Casino Royale and Skyfall, both featured charismatic and genuinely malevolent bad guys: Mads Mikkelsen and Javier Bardem, respectively. Skyfall is my favourite modern Bond, a movie that I return to from time to time like comfort food. Smart and well constructed – and beautifully shot by the great Roger Deakins – it also has the sense of foreboding, of ominous finality, that this one strains for and mostly lacks. And Bardem’s Raoul Silva was a memorably perverse antagonist. But Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, from the earlier film, might be 007’s most worthy adversary. He’s not some immensely wealthy evil mastermind in a hidden lair, just a banker with a gambling habit, badly in debt to the international terrorists who are his paymasters. There’s no grand plan, no desire for world domination, simply a smart, dangerous man backed into a corner and fighting to survive. Compared to that, wee Lyutsifer in his cement shed, blethering about his “poison garden”, doesn’t quite cut it.

This film starts promisingly, notably during a Havana-set interlude featuring Cuban-Spanish actor Ana de Armas, who shows up for just 10 minutes and walks off with the entire movie. But as it proceeds, it somehow manages to feel both over-plotted and, at the same time, weirdly diffuse. It’s well over halfway through this almost three-hour story before we really start to understand the threat or the stakes. Lyutsifer’s master plan (which never becomes entirely clear) involves a stolen bio-weapon, a lethal, highly contagious nanobot that, once it’s attached to a subject’s DNA, can never be removed. (So killer herpes, basically.) Some extremely talented British actors – Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear – attempt to advance this non-plot, mostly while staring at various computer screens and looking concerned. Yet when Fiennes is called upon to deliver a line like “Q, hack into Blofeld’s bionic eye”, I just feel sad.

Fukunaga does depart from formula in one crucial sense. The pre-credits sequence, this time, provides insight into another character’s backstory, rather than with the usual action set-piece involving Bond. Not quite as spectacular as we’re used to (the Day of the Dead opening to Spectre still reigns supreme), it nonetheless sets the tone for the film that follows: a narrative seemingly determined to decentre its protagonist from his own movie. This is a film about unsatisfactory substitutions – about the new M (Fiennes) not quite living up to the example of his late predecessor (Judi Dench), and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) trying and mostly failing to erase the, ahem, spectre of her boyfriend’s first love, the late, still-lamented Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).

Even Bond, five years inactive and presumed dead, has been replaced by another 007 (Lashana Lynch), who happens to be young, black and female – qualities that will doubtless inspire spluttering indignation among the MAGA brigade, but actually just smack of tokenism, since her part is so underwritten as to be irrelevant. It’s no victory to cast actors of colour when you then barely use them; it just seems like lip-service to an idea of social progress that’s anyway at odds with a franchise still clinging, with almost touching determination, to a vision of global affairs in which Britain plays a leading role.

Ultimately, though – and despite these misdirections – this remains the Daniel Craig Show. Ian Fleming once said that he wanted Bond to be a “blunt instrument”, and the actor has certainly been that. Muscular and joli moche, he’s more distinctly working class than any previous 007, a chippy thug in a Tom Ford suit, who might pause for a moment to shoot his cuffs before casually breaking someone’s nose. There’s a palpable sense of danger to this Bond, which only makes his brief flashes of tenderness or sorrow all the more affecting. And there are a few of those here: “We have all the time in the world,” he murmurs to Madeleine as they drive along the Italian coast – a line that will have long-time aficionados reaching hastily for their seatbelts. Buckle up.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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