Devil’s Advocate is a rolling column that sees the world differently and argues for unpopular opinions of the day. This column, the writer acknowledges, can also be viewed as a race to get yourself cancelled. But like pineapple on pizza, he is willing to see the lighter side of it.
Denis Villeneuve’s magnum opus Dune has been hailed by critics as incredible high-stakes filmmaking. To some extent, it is. The scale of the film is unimaginable – little CGI, actual sets – mounted as it probably is on the budget of a mid-size Indian state. The technical flair is unimpeachable, so stunningly visceral are its scenes of life on a merciless desert planet. There is so much technical grandeur on display, it feels like a film that wants to impress upon you, immediately, its feats of engineering.
And though these impressions are undeniably registered, what is often glaringly missing is a sense of emotion, most importantly humour. On an emotional scale, Dune is another in a long range of films by the likes of Christopher Nolan, Villeneuve, and their ilk who have simply sucked the soul out of sci-fi, and reduced them to a battle between characters trying to out-brood the other.
A plaintive argument in favour of this tedious and dreary characterisation is that science fiction today is mostly about apocalyptic futures where the stress of scarce resources dries the humour out of humans like moisture from their lips. If humans could learn from distress, well, you would not have to ask them to mask up, impose fines, call them names at the next get-together or check if their Whatsapp forwards are the source of their latest science lesson. Human nature is an outlier to everything we think is an empirical certainty. Even if we assume these dystopian futures imply the internalisation of stress and existential dread, at least someone has retained a sense of humour through genetic inheritance or the off chance they saw a long lost Blu-ray DVD of a ‘timeless’ comedy classic.
There are some titular tells of the modern sci-fi film. The perpetual seriousness of the protagonists (almost all of them), the near absence of someone who has a sense of humour, and the possible rheumatic condition that prevents these characters from letting loose, or speaking above a certain pitch. Nolan’s Interstellar is infested by sad sacks who just cannot share a light moment between themselves. Villeneuve’s Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 (even with Ryan Gosling), and now Dune, are imperiously dull, with characters who speak like they are the resurrected ghosts of their former selves. In Dune, Jason Momoa is the only one sporting a whimsical grin and an out-of-the-box smile but barely says anything funny. Nolan’s Inception and Tenet are equally treacherous films populated by characters who you could not tell from Egyptian mummies in a spotting contest.
This shift to a new cinema is recent, the one that persists on hatching grief by warming it with the buttocks of characters who seldom act like unsuspecting humans. Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner cannot really be counted because it was technically a story about robots stuck inside human bodies. The Back to the Future films, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Jurassic Park, even Paul Verhoeven’s audacious Total Recall, are excellent examples of the age of disbelief, where the combination of technology and unassuming storytelling served the notion of wondrous entertainment. These films had quirky characters, relatable tropes, and rendered even the alien somewhat familiar with their extended dimensions of plausibility.
In comparison, today, the same films that inspire awe from the perspective of scale seem as if they have bled dry of both impulse and the fickleness of the human mind; the humbling fact that even in times of distress and discord, we tend to, and maybe even want to, lighten things up a bit.
It does not help that both Nolan and Villineueve, who are quite rightly hailed as the purveyors of a synthetic yet sensational form of cinema, use the services of Hans Zimmer, whose drone-like music could be used to cull flying birds, mid-flight. The rigid framework of this form of cinema seems to have propelled the now-accepted notion that the grandeur cannot be communicated through the vibrancy of direction, but only through the metrics of scale. These new directors might, once in a while, use cheerful colours in the backdrops of their characters. But their predisposition to minimalism in an emotional sense is telling for what it also regularly papers over – the inability to connect on a human level. It is perhaps the reason why both Villeneuve and Nolan choose to do sexy technical projects, unlike a Spielberg, who has done pretty much everything there is to do.
The likes of Dune will continue to get made because they are, after all, prestige projects, almost too self-serious to be considered ineligible as a form of storytelling. This is filmmaking so technically adept and so soulless at the same time it makes you wonder if science and its exaggerations have already lost their sheen as a source of bafflement and wonder. Nobody, inside or outside today’s cinema, is surprised to see a moderately impressive gadget anymore. It is all so commonplace, delivered to our senses with the drone of a piano diving down from outer space, that you kind of stop caring for because no one else seems to. The only button left to push in the miserly backrest of an overpaid recliner inside a potentially hazardous theatre thus – is awe. Joy and all that jazz, you can get elsewhere.
Dune is available in Indian cinemas.
Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.
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