2020s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Dune: Part One (2021)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

As a dedicated fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune and its literary children, I anticipated a new film adaptation with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Dune has managed to sustain a potent cult over the half-century since its publication, its influence manifest in subsequent hits as diverse as Star Wars, The Matrix, and Game of Thrones, to the point where its building blocks now seem pervasively familiar, even if its most individual and esoteric qualities remain largely untapped and evergreen in their strangeness. Herbert’s legendarium, with its encoded metaphors for mind-expanding drug use, fossil fuel dependency, post-colonial politics, nascent feminism, and religious seeking, seemed exactly attuned to gathering forces in the modern zeitgeist and so caught the imagination of three generations of dorm room dreamers, but also connected with a larger, more mainstream audience in a way hardcore science fiction rarely does, albeit also erecting a firm barrier between those who could penetrate Herbert’s odd, dense writing style and those left totally cold by it. On a more immediate level, Herbert’s preoccupation with the figure of a quasi-messianic hero who finds himself anointed the one person who can rebound from near-oblivion to lead an uprising helped connect the science fiction genre’s roots in pulp heroism and exotic adventuring with a new preoccupation with the experience of maturation as the key modern narrative, birthing the “chosen one” motif in just about every emulating fantastical epic since.

And, of course, there were earlier versions. David Lynch’s big, bizarre, contorted, but almost endlessly fascinating 1984 version became mostly remembered as a debacle echoing in the corridors of pop culture history but has since gathered a fervent cult following. Jim Harrison’s 2000 TV miniseries proved modestly popular and proficient in its indulgence: whilst scarcely memorable, it seems to have laid seeds for the age of prestige television. For myself, I love both the Herbert novel and Lynch’s film, even if they’re passions that cannot ever quite overlap: they exist a little like matter and antimatter, reflecting the image of the other but unable to touch without annihilation. Lynch’s film manages the unique task of being both maddeningly fastidious and wilfully odd as adaptation, sometimes obsessed with communicating the most finicky details from Herbert and elsewhere badly distorting and even avoiding important elements. Now comes the first part of Denis Villeneuve’s proposed two-instalment adaptation of Dune, a bombastic unit of expenditure and epic portent that seems to have been produced with a determination to avoid the heralded mistakes of Lynch’s version, by taking a leaf from Andres Muschietti’s financially successful adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017-19) and splitting the book into two movies.

It’s easy to see a dismaying motive behind the new version: present-day Hollywood’s reliance on familiar intellectual property with a hopefully baked-in audience has become so unshakeable that it would rather try again to adapt a book commonly described as unfilmable after Lynch’s version proved a massive financial failure, on the vague expectation the novel’s fans will come, than take a chance on something new. But hope for a new adaptation that would prove sufficiently balanced and coherent, able to at once honour the material’s most specific qualities and appeal to a big audience, has long preoccupied Dune’s fandom, particularly as I suspect every aficionado has long cherished their personal idea of how it should be done. Bifurcating the story promises that the novel’s meticulous construction of its imagined future 8000-odd years hence could be carefully meted out along with the strong, fairly straightforward central storyline. This approach has its own, big risks of course, as any of the three people who remember The Golden Compass (2007) can testify. Regardless, in familiar fashion, Dune unfolds in a distant future in which humans have colonised tracts of the galaxy and have developed a neo-feudal system of control where an all-powerful Emperor and the feudal houses under him administrate the many planets.

We see the House of Atreides, led by the canny and noble but world-weary Duke Leto (Oscar Isaacs), assigned to take over the planet Arrakis by his Emperor, displacing the previous clan of administrators, their hated rivals the Harkonnens, and taking on the responsibility of mining the substance called spice that only occurs there. The spice is absolutely crucial to the shape and operation of the Empire, so whilst the spice mining is an incredibly lucrative business, failure to keep it flowing could bring down harsh penalties. Leto and his advisors also suspect they’re being set up for a fall, a correct assumption, as the Harkonnens are being backed by the Emperor to wipe the Atreides out and rid him of rivals. Leto and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) have one son, the teenaged Paul (Timothée Chalamet): Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a sect who operate at the nexus of priestesses, nuns, witches, and genetic scientists. The sect has long been dedicated to breeding a human with psychic gifts pronounced enough to see the future and actively control future human evolution, a notional being dubbed the Kwisatz Haderach in ancient prophecy, and Jessica represents the near-culmination of the project. But Paul’s birth, the result of Jessica’s desire to please Leto after she unexpectedly fell in love with him, disrupted the project, and now Paul is displaying nascent signs of being the Kwisatz Haderach. The Atreides are attacked by the Harkonnens, who break through their defences thanks to the treachery of their house physician Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), but Yueh’s complex motives also see him arrange to save Paul and Jessica from the massacre.

Villeneuve wisely casts familiar faces even in relatively minor parts, making Dune something of an old-fashioned star-studded epic, even if it resists the Lynch version’s delight in showing off its all-star cast in a long curtain call-like final credits scene. Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin play the ultraloyal and omnicompetent Atreides warriors Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, respectively, whilst Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the house strategist and “Mentat” Thufir Hawat. The three actors have the ability to swiftly and effectively make their characters interesting and palpable, even as they’re also essentially wasted. Brolin gets one of the very few jots of humour in the film as he maintains his familiar tight and stoic grimace even whilst answering Leto’s teasing command to smile with “I am smiling.” Charlotte Rampling is somewhat inevitably cast as Reverend Mother Mohiam, the stern, mysterious, haughty exemplar of the Bene Gesserit creed who nominally works for the Emperor but pushes the Bene Gesserit agenda at all times. Liet Kynes, the Imperial ecologist assigned to study Arrakis turned covert renegade and a male in the book, has here been turned into a woman for some reason or another, with Sharon Duncan-Brewster taking the role. Javier Bardem turns up for two scenes to mumble impressively as Stilgar, a leader of the so-called Fremen, the original human colonists of Arrakis who long since adapted to life on the planet and consider themselves its true custodians, but have since suffered from persecution at the hands of the Imperial and Harkonnen enforcers.

Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth peel away much of the story superstructure in digging down to the fundamental melodrama that forms the spine of the plot, which, he’s decided, is the fate of the key Atreides themselves – Leto, Jessica, and Paul, with interpersonal exchanges between the three trying for a mix of familial affection and pained gravitas, and the tragedy that presages the rise of the young scion on the path to revenge and mystical transformation. There’s an early scene in the novel, dutifully recreated in all versions, which provides a galvanising moment in the narrative, when Paul is visited by Mohiam, who insists on testing his mettle for at that point obscure reasons. She forces him to stick his hand into a box that induces terrible pain, challenging him to withstand the pain or be killed with a poisoned needle pressed to his throat, in a rite of passage designed to distinguish if he’s a true human, infinitely capable of patience and resistance, or a mere “animal,” slave to impulse and reaction. It’s a scene that, I expect, most genuinely hooks the attention of about-to-be fans, as it not only presents a thrilling situation, but also encapsulates much of how Herbert’s writing and storytelling works – the lengthy, ritualistic confrontation of strong personalities, the suspense based in the problem of a surviving a situation when hemmed in by potential checkmates of lethal capacity where cast-iron willpower must be met with the same, and the unsettling description of a teenage boy being forced to endure perfect agony without flinching as a preparation for life in a world without safe and comforting moral boundaries.

Villeneuve handles the scene as well as Lynch did, in the contrast between Chalamet’s open-faced youthfulness and Mohiam’s veil-clad and forbidding embodiment of all that’s powerfully arcane and dismissive of weakness, particularly with the added touch of Jessica able to maintain sympathy with her son from outside the room and experiencing what he experiences, reciting the famous mantra against fear. Villeneuve and his screenwriting team seem to be trying to take a leaf from The Godfather’s (1972) example in trying to communicate the relationships between the central family characters whilst they seem to mostly discuss business, as in another early scene where Paul and his father discuss the looming challenge before them whilst walking between grave markers of their ancestors on the grey and watery world of Caladan that has long been their home and fiefdom. The trouble is despite this approach I never really felt convinced by their family dynamics. Isaac and Ferguson are strong actors and are undoubtedly the right age, but it still feels a little odd seeing them cast as the grizzled patriarch and weirdly hot mother who has a perturbing dynamic with her on-screen son. It doesn’t help that Isaac and Ferguson are both forced to quell their natural charisma to fit into Villeneuve’s pinched, po-faced dramatic style. Villeneuve’s essential approach is one of characters muttering earnestly at one-another in dimly-lit spaces.

What’s surprising about Villeneuve’s Dune is that despite being given a nominal wealth of space to tell the story, it doesn’t really know what to do with it. Despite the simplifications, the script essentially settles for being an exposition machine, with very few flashes of effective and engaging interpersonal detail, like Paul being teased by Gurney whilst being welcomed for the first time into one of the House strategy meetings. It’s the sort of movie that makes you long for the day when a director would spice up an epic with a few dancing girls or something. Villeneuve takes almost exactly as long as Lynch did in telling the story from beginning to the point where Leto finds Fremen housekeeper Shadout Mapes (Golda Rosheuvel) dying, signalling the start of the Harkonnen attack, and then spends the majority of the next hour and twenty minutes of running time on a listless succession of chase scenes Lynch was more effective in compressing. As a fan of the book I’m in a dichotomous position in this regard. Familiarity helps me keep up and indeed a step ahead of everything so I don’t need to expend the mental energy it will undoubtedly cost a newcomer to the material. But it also makes me susceptible to possible boredom when I simply see things being checked off rather than being truly, creatively explored. Unfortunately, that’s what I began to feel watching Villeneuve’s Dune.

The Quebecois Villeneuve emerged as a feature filmmaker with 1998’s August 32nd On Earth, a debut that immediately gained him notice as a talent screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and his French-language follow-ups, Maelstrom (2000), Polytechnique (2009), and Incendies (2010), were all acclaimed and award-garnered, with the middle film stirring some disquiet in portraying an shooting spree at the University of Montreal in 1989. Villeneuve then went Hollywood with the would-be thoughtful, moody thriller Prisoners (2013), sparking a swift rise up the Hollywood totem pole as he followed with the paranoia study Enemy (2013), the drug war drama Sicario (2015), and sci-fi tales Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I haven’t seen Villeneuve’s French-language films: if I had I might have a different perspective on his later stabs at mating art movie postures with popular storytelling. As far as they go, I find Villeneuve a largely insufferable filmmaker. But he’s one who certainly seems to be finding a particular niche in current mainstream cinema discourse similar to those held in the recent past by David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, in that his particular approach seems to impress some and dismay others through a carefully filtered aesthetic sensibility aiming to deliver chic spectacle.

Villeneuve’s mainstream works to date have been defined by this smothering aesthetic matched to storylines that are generally far less deep and intensive than the stylistic cues insist they are. Those cues, including a relentlessly drab colour palette and droning, booming music scores, seem to me hallmarks of a particular brand of modern quasi-seriousness even when, upon close inspection, there’s little substance to back them up in Villeneuve’s films. I still cringe when I remember how the plot of Arrival was explained by a randomly info-dumping Chinese general to the time-unmoored heroine, or Sicario affected to be a grim investigation of the drug war only to become a ridiculous revenge drama, and Prisoners waded through highly unsubtle character signposting and emblazoned themes even whilst affecting a glaze of knit-browed profundity. Like Blade Runner 2049, Dune sees Villeneuve being relatively restrained, but there’s still something relentlessly pummelling and joyless about his filmmaking to me. Dune has been sucked dry of all its exotic strangeness and dynamism, all its semi-surreal, florid liveliness, with a kind of dry, pseud efficiency in its place. “My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low,” Chani (Zendaya), Kynes’ daughter and a Fremen warrior, is heard in voiceover at the very outset. This immediately evinces an attempt by the filmmakers to combine exposition and low-key genre poetry, a method that continues throughout. But the unconvincing clumsiness of the line, the lack of actual, proper expressive language and specificity apparent in it, also neatly demonstrate how this method fails.

Rather than the artists who provided beloved illustrations and cover art for the books, like Bruce Pennington and John Schoenherr, Villeneuve moves to take inspiration from more European styles in sci-fi illustration, with a particular emulation of the work of Jean ‘Moebius’ Girard in the oddball costuming and weirdly-shaped spaceships, designs which, as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) which had actual Moebius design work proved, just don’t work very well off the page. But that’s a relatively minor issue. It’s in the specifics that Villeneuve really falls down. The actual uses of the spice and way the substance informs the entire social, political, and economic structure of Herbert’s universe are more or less dismissed in a couple of pithy lines of dialogue, and so we’ve subtly but firmly shifted from any attempt to convey the depth of Herbert’s text in favour of simply delivering its most basic story points. Sometimes this can be a wise move – Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked in large part because whilst it happily included much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s esoterica, it knew how to impart it in a fashion that wove around rather than interrupted the central story. The trouble is Dune doesn’t work in the same way. Tolkien deliberately structured his stories so you didn’t have to worry about the quasi-angelic background of the many magical figures including Sauron, Gandalf, and Balrog, even if to understand all that does make things more explicable: nonetheless we intrinsically grasp their function. Similarly, in Dune, it’s possible to approach it without thinking too much about the larger structure and historical meaning of organisations like the Bene Gesserit and the guild of mutated Navigators who need the spice to fuel their precognitive ability to steer colossal spaceships.

But – and this is a large but – to not understand those things means to miss what’s important and interesting about Dune as a mythos and as a work of speculative fiction. If you haven’t read the books you’ll have no idea from this movie about the Navigators; whilst the function and method of the Mentats are depicted through Thufir, just exactly what they are and why they exist is likewise impossible to properly deduce, nor why the flying machines and spacecraft are conspicuously missing guidance computers. Anyone who’s read the book knows about the Butlerian Jihad, which saw all robots and artificial intelligences destroyed and forbidden in the universe, and obliging human beings to stretch their abilities to limits unthought-of in our current time, most of it allowed by the spice. Herbert’s real fascination was with human intelligence and physical development as our vehicle, for which our machines are mere externalised devices. I didn’t sense any real intellectual curiosity in Villeneuve’s Dune, nor desire to put across Herbert’s world beyond what’s strictly necessary to the plot. In Villeneuve’s vision, the spice is reduced from a substance of vast, fantastical conceptual importance to the mere, tinny metaphor for fossil fuel it started as, combined with a kind of light hallucinogen. Villeneuve’s renderings of Paul’s visions are the most banal imaginable, consisting of lots of adolescent yearning glimpses of Chani, swanning about in flowing garb, and occasional glimpses of tussling warriors.

This tendency, to mine the prosaic from the visionary, is an awfully common failing of a lot of recent genre film and television in the contemporary obsession with grounding and pseudo-realism. With Villeneuve it’s particularly acute, having already taken Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and tapped it for straightforward plotting and self-consciously obvious thematics, reducing the original’s unique dreamlike palette and narrative density to just another plodding blend of action movie and TV commercial-like sentimentality in its odes to human qualities. Similarly, there’s a monotony to the acting and dramatic beats here. The introduction of the Harkonnens themselves, including the bulbous, infinitely malevolent Baron Harkonnen himself (Stellan Skarsgard), his henchman Raban (Dave Bautista), and Mentat Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian), takes the mumbling-in-dark-rooms aesthetic to a logical conclusion: the entire world of the Harkonnens seems to have a lighting problem. The obvious, cliché casting of Skarsgard, swathed in a fat suit, is matched by the equal, exhausting obviousness of the nods to Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now (1979), as Skarsgard strokes his greasy bald pate with monstrous meditation.

The portrayal of the Harkonnens in Lynch’s film has long seemed to me the biggest problem with that work, in trying to graft Lynch’s penchant for leering id-beasts and wild, bristling bullies onto Herbert’s material with its hypnotic fascination with intellectual evil and total amorality. And yet I found myself longing for the vividness of Kenneth McMillan’s Harkonnen and his outsized delight in obscene behaviour, compared to this drab substitution, and Lynch’s most gleefully appalling touches, like giving a poisoning victim a surgically stitched-together cat and rat to milk for an antidote daily, or Raban crushing a small animal and drinking its bodily fluids like orange juice. The closest Villeneuve gets to such twisted flavour is a brief glimpse of some genetic chimera, part humanoid, part spider that his Harkonnens keep as a pet. Yueh was played with some force by Dean Stockwell in Lynch’s film, and his pathos as a man who betrays himself and his friends for the sake of one, desperate tilt at a more personal revenge was allowed to register as he screamed at Harkonnen after being stabbed in the back for his aid, “You think I don’t know what I’ve done? For my wife?” By comparison, Cheng’s Yueh is bland and blasé even as he dies, his motive not suggested until just before he’s killed, one of the many tributaries of potential melodramatic juice reduced to mere plot function in the face of the impassive-grandiose style. There is, that said, a good touch when Harkonnen has Leto prisoner thanks to Yueh’s machinations: Villeneuve has the Duke stripped naked and laid prone before his enemy, a potent little encapsulation of his sudden vulnerability before a truly evil foe. But Lynch’s crazy, disturbing imagination imbued his Dune with something by and large missing from this one. Which is one reason I’ve long felt that Lynch’s Dune is not a perfect adaptation but is perfectly itself, wielding a specificity and, most importantly, a fearlessness of creative passion almost entirely missing from contemporary big-budget cinema.

Not that I want to get bogged down in simply comparing Lynch and Villeneuve’s versions. Villeneuve goes for an aesthetic, full of monumental forms and a kind of medieval minimalism in décor and design, that’s quite different to the tangled Gothicism, Austro-Hungarian martial dress, and madcap Rococo dominant in Lynch’s film, and it’s a look that struck me as more appropriate to the material. And yet Villeneuve’s style of shooting too often has the hyper-sharp, gritty-glossy look of high-end video game cutscenes, particularly in the special effects sequences, although there’s still some genuine awe stoked by visions like the Atreides fleet being disgorged by one of the colossal “heighliner” space transport vessels. His vision of Caladan makes it look like a drizzly patch of New Brunswick – understandable perhaps for Villeneuve – rather than a watery world where the primal power of the ocean matches and opposes the similar power of Arrakis. Villeneuve swaps out a blue filter for Caladan for a grey-brown one on Arrakis, and he makes the desert planet relentlessly dingy and colourless. Villeneuve’s approach has drawn a lot of comparison to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but I can’t see why. David Lean (who was apparently approached to direct the first version at one point, whilst Herbert himself took strong inspiration from T.E. Lawrence’s story) knew how to convey the scale of the desert as well as its physical extremes through his approach to light, framing, and colour – the more brilliantly blue the skies the more relentless the sense of sun beating down, of exposure and dire physical straits. Villeneuve makes all of his shots colourless, his skies filled with omnipresent dust, and his desert looks, well, rather tepid.

One telling disparity in Villeneuve’s take on Blade Runner was where Scott’s street scenes were teeming with life carefully conveyed not just through hiring extras and costuming them but with the camera’s sense of how to pick up that life, Villeneuve’s felt stodgy and depopulated. There’s a similar lack of any real energy and sense of lifestyle in his approach here. Here everyone seems afraid to raise their voices too high or gesticulate too much lest they disturb the carefully composed symmetry of the shots. There’s genuine visual ingenuity sometimes, that said. Herbert’s cleverest touches, like the ban on nuclear weapons and the personalised force-fields that have returned warfare back to a matter of who’s best at hand-to-hand combat rather than one of projectile weapons, helped at once to give a clever legitimacy to the old-school space opera’s Wagner-in-space sensibility, whilst also feeling coherent and well-thought-through in terms of its imagined future’s construction, where the path to victory for both villains and heroes means threading a path through seemingly impregnable bulwarks of technology and behaviour. The visualisation of the fights between force-field-wearing warriors are good, but only when dealing with one-on-one fights. The big, tragic combat between the invading Harkonnens and Atreides host is oddly curtailed and lacking much dynamism in staging, the sort of moment that really makes you wish some ebullient meathead like Zack Snyder or Neil Marshall was directing rather than a hyperfussy aesthete. Herbert’s ornithopters, the usual mode of flight on Arrakis, long seemed one of those ideas easy to imagine and write but just about impossible to effectively film, are realised nonetheless with true visual élan, with Villeneuve’s take offering helicopters with side-mounted blade that beat like dragonfly-like wings. There are some truly beautiful images scattered throughout, testifying to the cinematographer Greig Fraser’s masterful talents, including the striking prologue depicting Fremen resistance against the Harkonnen spice miners during a sandstorm.

And of course there’s the sandworms, the massive beasts that infest the sands of Arrakis and provide an omnipresent threat, as well as a potential source of power, and are connected to the spice. Villeneuve handles the first scene involving a worm well, in part because it’s a strong suspense situation: Leto and his team, being flown over the desert by Kynes, spot a worm advancing on a manned spice harvesting machine and race to save the crew before the unimaginably large creature swallows the harvester up. Modern special effects are more than equal to the task of realising the worms, and there’s a nice tightening of the suspense as Paul is abruptly distracted during the rescue as he breathes in the unrefined spice and is plunged into a visionary state, demanding Gurney fetch him, the two almost getting caught in the liquefying sands caused by the worm’s approach. After this, however, in the subsequent appearance by the worms as one swallows up a team of Imperial “Sardaukar” troops after they’ve executed Kynes in the desert, and another chases after Paul and Jessica, the worms rapidly become familiar and prove a bit dull-looking: whilst obviously better-realised in a technical sense, they never register as effectively nightmarish as Carlo Rambaldi’s creations for Lynch did, particularly in the latter pursuit. Villeneuve’s versions have long hair-like teeth and perfectly round mouths and crinkly, puckered skin that make them look a bit, well, anal, particularly in a very misjudged shot when one pauses it attack and sits centre-frame. Not that this represents some lurch towards Freudian imagery. If Lynch arguably went overboard in trying to tease out the surrealist imagery and dream symbolism inherent in Herbert’s material, Villeneuve’s edition strains in the opposite direction to make everything clean and hard-edged, plunging Herbert back into the regulation techno-fascist style he broke with.

Momoa’s presence, with his innate muscular swagger and obliquely twisting grin, gives the film a thankful jolt of matinee heroism that’s also appropriate for the character, who, as his name suggests, is offered as a kind of holdover of an ancient kind of frontier grit – one reason Herbert kept reviving Duncan over and over in the books. Villeneuve gives him an appropriately spectacular end, something Lynch fumbled rather badly, as he fights a unit of the Sardaukar hunting Paul and Jessica after the Atreides’ downfall, still managing to battle on even after being skewered with a blade. Momoa’s presence is particularly vital as he offsets Chalamet. Chalamet is definitely a current It Boy on the cinema scene with his anime-drawing-of-a-young-man looks, and he’s an actor with great potential – he did, for instance, an excellent job as the compulsory stand-in for the director of A Rainy Day In New York (2020). The film tosses in a ribbing joke about his lack of muscular manhood, but it doesn’t quite cover up the fact that he feels wrong in the role, whereas Kyle MacLachlan, whatever else you can say about him, expertly negotiated the shift from eager teenager to fearsome messiah: here Chalamet kept reminding me a little too keenly of his character in Lady Bird (2018) as a gangly brat who read a Marxist text once, here with a few added taekwondo lessons. One problem is that Villeneuve’s relentless approach to the style means the only moment where Paul feels at all boyish is when he first meets Duncan on screen, displaying a smile reserved for a kind of older brother or alternative father hero figure. Later in the film when he’s called upon to display emerging grit and gravitas he falls totally flat.

A more obvious problem with Dune: Part One is there in the title. We don’t get a complete story here, and the point where Villeneuve and company choose to leave off is at once fairly natural but also tormenting only in being anticlimactic. Villeneuve ends not on a cliffhanger but at a relatively lackadaisical story juncture, as Paul and Jessica are accepted into the Fremen fold after Paul finally meets Chani, and he is obliged to kill a Fremen, Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), when the offended and xenophobic warrior challenges him to a duel, a fight that establishes Paul really does have a deadly streak as well as training. This provides a solid fight scene that nonetheless caps off the multimillion dollar blockbuster about some kind of war in the stars with a knife fight. “This is only the beginning,” Chani says in a trailer-ready line, whilst looking and sounding just like a sophomore at a SoCal performing arts school. The time Dune: Part One spent on the shelf awaiting post-COVID release is telling as Zendaya still looks rather young and pouchy-cheeked, with no sign of the impressive maturity she brought to bear in this year’s Malcolm & Marie – not that she’s in the film long enough to make much impression either way. Hans Zimmer matches Villeneuve’s style perfectly in his scoring, alternating drones and ululating songstresses and throbbing-propulsive, drum-thumping cues in a succession of current scoring clichés. Zimmer’s scores are inseparable from the contemporary blockbuster scene, and more specifically from the way movies are sold now: Zimmer’s work maintains a perfect synergy with the art of modern movie trailers, and in effect his work essentially does advertising for the movie within itself, refusing any kind of lyrical invitation in an imaginative universe but instead twisting the viewer’s wrist to find it all grand and darkly thrilling.

Herbert nodded to the early history of science fiction with Dune, with quite a bit of Flash Gordon and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars tales in its makeup as well as more sophisticated concerns and investigation of mythopoeic patterns. So to a certain extent it’s fair enough that the movie emphasises this aspect, even if it doesn’t do it all that well. But Herbert deconstructed that kind of old-fashioned adventure tale at the same time, commenting on what’s often seen as the quasi-imperialist assumptions of stories where outsiders, usually white and western, become leaders of far-flung populaces, whilst his narrative both mimicked and commented upon the power of messianic mythology, uncovering links with twentieth century totalitarian movements. Herbert kept in mind things like the way Moses’ emergence as prophet and nation leader led directly to a war of extermination after the wanderings in the desert waged upon occupants of the Promised Land, and saw the way such narratives are pitched as self-justifying for aggrieved nations. He also had an evident fascination for Arabic legend and culture, appropriate considering the story’s basis in the current reality of the oil boom in the Middle East, but also tackled in a complicating fashion: Herbert’s future is a great melting pot of all past human culture and identity, where religions, creeds, and races have long since all formed into a melange as rich as the spice. The Fremen are hardly supposed to be mere stand-ins for Arabic peoples, but a society that’s retained and transmitted a classical culture as appropriate to their lifestyle. This is, after all, once again supposed to be science fiction. Villeneuve’s choice nonetheless is to hammer home the relevance and the more stolid side of the fantasy by emphasising the Fremen culture as quasi-Arabic, which manages at once to be more of a sop to emphasising contemporary parable but also more retrograde and confused in the contained politics.

As for Paul’s dread of the potential of unleashing a genocidal holy war, Villeneuve signals, at least, unlike Lynch who avoided and indeed entirely contradicted it, that he plans to deal with this consequence, but still only has Paul very quickly mutter some malarkey about holy war along with some flash-cut visions of a bloody hand. Lynch’s theatrical cut was forced to compress the second half of the novel in extremely ungainly fashion, so in this regard Villeneuve has left himself plenty of room to deal with the oncoming deluge of fresh weirdness, including Paul’s self-inflicted visionary trip to emerge as Kwisatz Haderach, the arrival of his sister Alia, the bloodthirsty adult in a child’s body, and the great battle for control of Arrakis and the Empire, as well as the bleak side to Paul’s ascension. And yet I’m also forced to ponder how Villeneuve will drain these of their perverted fervour. The ultimate impression Dune: Part One left me with was of something utilitarian, a work that seems to have finally managed, judging by the box office and general reception, the task of successfully selling Herbert’s creation to a broad audience, and indeed it’s worth celebrating insofar as it finally revives hope for franchise blockbusters more ambitious and mature than superhero movies. But the price paid for this is pyrrhic, as too much of what made Herbert’s work lasting and interesting has been sacrificed, and what’s left in its place is occasionally striking but essentially inert. Moreover, it forces me to say something I never, ever expected to say: Lynch’s version remains the superior.

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2010s, British cinema, Film Noir

Brighton Rock (2010)

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Director: Rowan Joffe

By Roderick Heath

Perhaps Graham Greene’s best-known novel, 1938’s Brighton Rock, was filmed first in 1947 by John Boulting and proved a foundation stone for the British strand of film noir. Greene’s survival and ascension to become one of the most recognised and admired writers from his era says something about the durability of Greene’s no-nonsense prose and capacity to blend serious thematic and psychological investigation with solid storytelling. Perhaps Greene’s durability depends in part on the fact that he knew the cinema well and understood its likely impact on audiences for literature as well, sensing intuitively how the two arts would eventually help define each other. Boulting’s film hinged on the capacity of young star Richard Attenborough to project baby-faced menace and oily charm in equal measure. The new version of Brighton Rock seems much more a work laden with a self-conscious sense of legacies—of Greene, of British and classic film noir history, and of director Rowan Joffe, the son of ill-fated faux-auteur Roland Joffe. Joffe the younger makes his feature directing debut with the film after two telemovies and some strong screenwriting work, like his admirably curt script for Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010). Joffe’s script retains the storyline and moral permeations of Greene’s novel, but his cinematic tone is rather different to the sort of dry, unadorned compactness Greene specialised in.

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Sam Riley, the young star of Corbijn’s overrated but sturdy Control (2009), takes over Attenborough’s role as Pinkie Brown, young psychopath and emblem of troubled youth and Catholic angst. Joffe’s adaptation is reset in 1964, the year of the infamous Mod-Rocker riot previously depicted in Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979). Pinkie is the sort of youth who keeps a drawer full of weapons of pain and carries a vial of acid in his pocket. Initially, he’s an minor stand-over man for a bookie, Bell (Danny Banks), who is semi-accidentally stabbed to death in the opening scene by rival hoods led by Colleoni (Andy Serkis). That opening is shot in boldly expressionistic style by Joffe, with rain, abstracted architecture, silhouettes, and pooled source lighting, and punctuated with blasts of menacing Inception-style horns that suggest things of great and terrible import are about to occur. Here Joffe announces his seeming intent to return a bit of old-school cinematic vigour to the contemporary screen.

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Bell’s small crew, including the aging, vexed Spicer (Phil Davis) and hulking Dallow (Nonso Anozie), plan moderated revenge upon Bell’s killer, Hale (Sean Harris). Pinkie finds Hale in a public toilet, but his hesitation allows Hale to fake him out and then disarm him. Pinkie and the rest of the crew track him to Brighton Pier, where he is chasing girls and trying to pick up mousy Rose Wilson (Andrea Riseborough). When Spicer finds him, he, Hale, and Rose are snapped by a pier photographer, who gives Rose a ticket to claim the picture later. When Pinkie chases down Hale and gets a cut on the face from his knife, Pinkie tackles him and beats his head in with a rock. Shocked, Spicer orders Pinkie to get close to Rose so he can steal the ticket to claim the photograph.

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Rose works as a waitress in the tea shop of Ida (Helen Mirren), a hardened, independent woman. A friend of Hale’s and of independent bookie Phil Corkery (John Hurt), Ida catches wind of Pinkie’s killing of Hale and sets out to nail him, especially when she learns of Rose’s swiftly forming infatuation for him. Rose is immediately compelled by Pinkie’s air of intensity and because he appeals to a budding masochistic streak in her: “You can keep doing that…if you like it,” she whispers as he fiercely twists the skin on her hand in a moment of pique. Rose quickly enough realises Pinkie’s outlaw status, but digs it: chafing against the dowdy parsimony of working-class life, she interestingly contrasts Ida, a woman with a wholehearted, yet unwholesome romanticism. The change in milieu then interestingly reconfigures the asocial impulses of Greene’s young characters from the ’30s, where they were violently out of place, into one in which they fit, if darkly—the ’60s youth movement. Pinkie and Rose contrast their older doubles, Spicer and Ida, whose dreams and expectations are small-scale self-realisation: Spicer wants to own a pub in the north, and Ida enjoys her no-strings coterie of “gentleman friends” that excludes the sort of transcendent ardour and emotional outlet the younger folk seek at all costs.

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It’s peculiarly telling then that Joffe’s version of Brighton Rock sees Rose rather than Pinkie become its most affecting character. That’s not entirely deliberate: both Joffe’s awkward script and Riley’s surprisingly one-note characterisation conspire to limit what ought to be Pinkie’s impact, considering that he was the prototypical version of Alex DeLarge, the main figure of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, as lightning rod for everything sexy and amoral about dangerous youth. Whilst he’s effective enough in early scenes as Pinkie begins to grow swiftly in sensing his power—legally endangered and religiously damned and yet psychically liberated by his killing of Hale—Riley spurns the vulnerable, quicksilver sensitivity he showed in his performance as Ian Curtis in Control, which might have effectively permeated this role. It becomes hard to see just why Rose falls so heavily for him: he’s just too much the knit-browed young psycho. The result eventually seems cartoonish in portraying pathetic neediness and masochistic impulse meeting a perfect illusion-spinning antihero.

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This lack of finesse is apparent on several levels in Brighton Rock as it quickly proves that Joffe has less an inherent sense of the classic film styles he tries to evoke, and more a serious case of that tragic malady known as The Director Thinks They’re Hitchcock Syndrome, a disease that strikes one out of ten young directors. Pointlessly florid crane and tracking shots, and hammy Herrmann-esque orchestral sounds threaten to drown the felicities of his better ideas. Joffe’s film school cinema embroiders but hardly suits the carbolic hiss of Greene’s writing, which was far better put across on screen by cold-blooded bastards like Carol Reed and Otto Preminger.

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Rather inevitably, but in a well-staged fashion, a riot features in a set-piece sequence. This comes when Pinkie decides to have Spicer killed after he rats him out to the police (the excellent actor Maurice Roëves appears for about 30 seconds as Pinkie’s grilling police detective). Having received and accepted an offer of partnership from Colleoni, a smoothed-over overlord ensconced in the Brighton Grand Hotel, Pinkie arranges to have Colleoni’s men kill Spicer under the pier. But the mods are streaming into town, and in Joffe’s best moment, Pinkie gives Spicer a lift to what he thinks will be a business meeting on his scooter and finds himself surrounded by a flotilla of such vehicles, menacing music droning as the oncoming tide of dark energy enfolds and briefly includes Pinkie’s life arc. But he swiftly finds himself outside it again as Colleoni’s boys try to kill him as well, and he finishes up fleeing stiletto-wielding thugs amidst a landscape of convulsive violence as the youth armies begin to battle. Such a moment nods to both Roddam and also the equally helter-skelter depiction of the collapse of Cambodia in papa Roland’s The Killing Fields (1984).

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The film introduces early on Pinkie’s strange version of Catholicism where Hell is much more vivid and literal to him than any notion of paradise, willing on perdition and the resulting sensation of gloriously evil he gains from this notion and which Rose is attracted to. “I don’t want to be good!” she shouts at Pinkie, to his retort, “No, I’m bad, and you’re good. We’re made for each other.” Sadly, Joffe underscores the point in a sequence in which they get married, with Pinkie cast in shadows and Rose aglow in a shaft of sun. An equally snigger-worthy interlude comes when Rose visits church and Joffe indulges the inevitable Catholic fetishism with massed candles. It’s like an early Madonna video. The incapacity of Joffe to get a solid grip on the deeper dimensions of the story, which are pretty old-hat at the best of times, and the way both Pinkie and Rose get off on their calculated blasphemies, mean that his film never successfully elevates itself above relatively factotum bad-boy melodrama.

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Brighton Rock offers the standard refrains of the British gangster flick in which the scary-sexy monster compels and alarms those around him but located in a quaint period setting. Those refrains were probably largely instituted by Greene’s work and its influence on Burgess’s, but with strands going back to Oliver Twist’s Bill Sykes and Nancy, and reproduced in quite a lot of British gangster films in recent years, including Sexy Beast, Essex Boys, and Gangster No. 1, all from 2000. Still, Joffe and Riseborough conspire to pull off one excellent moment late in the film, in which Rose succumbs to temptation and steals ₤10 to buy herself a hip dress, twirling with oblivious, pitiable pleasure before Pinkie, who’s furious at a visit from Ida and who is becoming convinced Rose will sell him out. Joffe also at least does right in his recreations of period squalor and depression, particularly in a scene in which Rose takes Pinkie to meet her father (Steve Evets), from whom he basically buys Rose for ₤150. This is the shitty world hidden behind the glitz of the Brighton waterfront and the castlelike Grand Hotel which keeps its toffy clients well protected from the grim grittiness of the street and which gives ambient context to the rage and frustration of the kids who aren’t alright.

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The usually reliable Serkis unfortunately delivers a sorry piece of archness in his appearances as Colleoni, seated upon a chaise lounge and petting its fabric with erotic menace. Mirren’s role and performance are both rather clichéd, indicating Joffe fell prey to the problems of celebrity casting. Joffe utilises a vicious couplet of sequences added by Greene to the script of the 1947 film, and recreates them almost exactly the way Boulting shot them. Rose, beaming with hopeful ignorance through the glass of a recording booth in which Pinkie, cajoled by her to put his voice on vinyl, records a gruesomely abusive message for her; she can’t listen to the message because neither of them has a record player.

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When Rose finally gets hold of a player at the end, after she’s been cast into a borstal for her complicity in Pinkie’s crimes, the disc skips and keeps repeating a part of the message, “I love you,” over and over. In the 1947 film, this was clearly linked to a rather cute but affecting piece of transcendental reassurance on the behalf of a nun; here the ramification is much less clear, suggesting that Rose is more a hopeless self-deluder and emotional junkie, and the very last shot seems weirdly inexact and hammy. The problem of Joffe’s constantly indebted style is finally sharpened to a point; his film comes across like a system of borrowed affectations and meanings without ever quite developing a personality of its own. By the time its rather overwrought finale rolls around, in which Pinkie expires rather fittingly with a face full of his own acid before plunging over a white cliff of Dover, Brighton Rock is already too clearly a failure in ambition, substance, and style. The better scenes, Riseborough’s and Hurt’s excellent performances, and John Mathieson’s lively photography, do suggest what a more mature cinematic talent might have managed.

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2000s, Scifi

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

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Director: Scott Derrickson

By Roderick Heath

This retooling of Robert Wise’s venerable 1951 model starts well, but quickly proves a wretched embarrassment. Wise’s film isn’t quite the cute and cuddly model of the nice alien school of scifi story it might seem. There’s a latent fascism in the conclusion that scifi writer and scholar David Wingrove once called the “cooperate or else” stream of genre morality in which someone of greater intelligence is always stepping in and laying down the law to us foolish humans. Yet there’s a reason Wise’s film is still considered one of the most adult of science fiction films: it engages with its core concepts with a far greater rigor and openness of mind and spirit than this overpriced piece of claptrap.

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The general plot is still in play: Klaatu, an alien ambassador, arrives on Planet Earth to deliver a greeting and a warning. He’s shot on arrival, taken in hand by government spooks, escapes, and strikes up a friendship with a single mother and her son, who help him understand the species much better. In this remake, however, the mother, Helena Benson (Jennifer Connelly), is a biology professor (my homework was never quite like this, whoa whoa!), and her son is a step-child. Black, too—see, we’re touching all the PC bases here, noone can accuse us of being behind the times, nosireebob. One wonders why screenwriter David Scarpa neglected to make Helena an Islamic lesbian, too. Helena’s charge, Jacob (Jaden Smith), has issues because his daddy died in war (which one is skipped around, lest anyone think we’re being controversial here). He maintains the same frosty cynicism towards his stepmother that Dakota Fanning exhibited towards papa Tom Cruise in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and makes equally as a good case for a return of spanking.

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Michael Rennie’s Klaatu was agreeable—avuncular even—intelligent, and communicative, yet quietly superior and alien in a subtle fashion, like a tourist interacting with an environment he’d read a lot about but still found surprising. The new, unimproved Klaatu, embodied by Keanu Reeves with a “Look Ma, I’m acting!” crease in his glacial forehead, is a pushy jerk with the message of Al Gore (but less charisma, if that’s possible) and the methods of Adolf Hitler. For some reason, he’s set up a bunch of arks to save specimens of earth species so that he can sterilize the earth of its human infestation; the concept of a genome-specific disease that could kill off humans without affecting the rest of the planet is apparently beyond the grasp of these genius aliens. This poorly thought-through adaptation of a would-be timely thesis is foolish in several respects, most of all, in strict narrative terms, as the film illogically presents its aliens as having interacted with human society for decades and yet learnt nothing about their basic character, so that Klaatu’s genocidal plan can be interrupted by reconciliation between a mother and son that’s so ludicrously inept in scripting and acting it’s a wonder Klaatu doesn’t speed the apocalypse up.

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The idea of rendering Klaatu as a more fundamentally alien being was a fair one, but it spends a great deal of time cribbing as many ideas from Starman as Wise’s film, and then rushes through the next two-thirds of the film as gaping holes in sense appear. It’s strange how the extraterrestrials go to so much effort to tailor their ambassador as a human for a visit of no greater length and meaning than a pest control visit, have him land out in the open, but don’t seem to have planned how to present a case or understand the beings he’s been sent to interact with, whereas that was specifically what Rennie’s Klaatu was all about. He was a creature who wanted to understand the world. Derrickson’s film reflects how much more of a cold, paranoid, self-loathing world we are today; this is partly critique, but also a very large part unconscious, because so much of the story’s worth has been sacrificed to swift efficiency of plot and sound-bite dialogue.

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Of some initial interest is the translation of ’50s political paranoia into a peculiarly ’00s variety, with the government goons portrayed as a bunch of glowering, harrying thugs working with all the graceless, bullying style all these movie cops and soldiers have that’s supposed to be the mark of impressive efficiency, but only comes across as dispiriting. The situation is under the control of a Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates, collecting her paycheck with all the aplomb of an ice cream stand attendant impatient for a cigarette break) who does and says so many stupid things she exemplifies the definitive case for mankind’s obliteratation. Also of interest is an element of something close to a pantheistic ideal, as Klaatu expostulates a lifecycle view of life that entails nothing ever actually dying, only altering. But ideas have gone out the window by the time of a would-be suspense sequence in which army helicopters chase Klaatu, Helena, and Jacob, and Helena is snatched up by a guy on a bungee cord in a moment of laugh-out-loud silliness.

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Most offensive and corrosive to the material is the way the original’s humanistic detail has been shorn away. In fact, humanistic detail seems to be more downright alien to the contemporary blockbuster and the people who make them than any number of spaceships. In Wise’s film, Helena and Jacob lived in a Washington boarding house that allowed for a droll stock-taking of human types living an everyday life (“People my foot, they’re Democrats!” Ah, Everett Sloan, where art thou?). Helena was romanced by an entirely normal, unsatisfying type of guy, an insurance salesman played by Hugh Marlowe. Here she has a platonic-or-something interaction with another scientist (John Hamm) that ends when he gets killed; nobody gives a damn by that point. In Wise’s film, the impact of Klaatu upon everyday life and the impact of everyday life on him was registered. No time for that here: the film apes those classic moments in old scifi films where we glimpse unrest and panic around the world on the TV, but there’s no engagement with the world outside the immediate narrative.

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The original’s iconic encounter was between Klaatu and Einstein stand-in Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who is rumbled by Klaatu’s superior gifts, is recreated pretty precisely, with Barnhardt now played by John Cleese. Not surprisingly, it’s the remake’s best moment. But the meaning of the encounter is spurned immediately. The original established mathematics as a universal language, an idea Spielberg took a step further in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where music, being both a mathematical form and a language form, bridged the gap and laid the groundwork for an ideal of intellectual and philosophical, as opposed to mercenarily political, leadership. Here, Klaatu listens briefly to some Bach and drones, “It’s beautiful,” whilst looking vaguely constipated. You get the feeling that he, and the filmmakers, would rather be listening to Van Halen. Cleese’s Barnhardt, after mumbling a few pieties about change, tells Helena that she can alter Klaatu’s mission only with “herself.” The exact meaning of this is initially unclear—does he want her to go down on him (now there’s some human experience for you)—but what it really entails is that familiar New Age gasbaggery of letting your heart show the way, etc.

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Derrickson’s scene construction, that basic A-B-C grammar of movies of which Hollywood is supposedly the starchy bastion, is woeful. One sequence, in which some drone aircraft are guided over New York to attack Gort with missiles, is utterly insensible at first, the loudest example of a basic carelessness in giving out information. Scenes come and go with no form of internal rhythm. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention Gort, which is fair enough because the film only occasionally remembers to cut back to what’s going on with him. It’s not Lock Martin in foam rubber anymore, it’s a big clunky CGI version, and waiting for him to cut loose is the movie’s only hope. But he’s actually a huge collective of nanobots that disperse when apocalypse time comes, so rather than giant-robot-on-puny-human action, we get these swirly, windy effects, as a conveniently empty New York gets eaten up.

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The film’s only signs of intelligent life come from Cleese, and a neat (if utterly senseless, in terms of writing and ethics) cameo from James Hong as another alien who reports that the human race is inflexible and must be destroyed, and yet also wants to die with it. Connelly remains a fair example of a competent, utterly unexciting talent elevated by her model looks to leading roles, essaying in Helena one of these drearily professional, cute-but-sexless drones that seems to be the only kind of mature, independent woman Hollywood keeps stock of. Reeves is an actor I’ve remained neutral on for a long time, out of respect for the real movies he once appeared in (River’s Edge, My Own Private Idaho), but now I’ll come off the fence: he’s a fucking bore. All the deft, calm, elevated intelligence that Rennie possessed is lost in space and with it, the dramatic and moral heart of the film. Rather than fill me with hope, this remake makes me ashamed of my species.

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2000s, Auteurs, Drama

The Departed (2006)

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Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

By Roderick Heath

John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Bernardo Bertolucci, Carol Reed, Robert Wise, and George Cukor are some great directors who gained Oscar triumph for films that were, by their standards, second-rate or impersonal works. So, Martin Scorsese finally gaining his statuette for a patchy remake of a slick Hong Kong crime drama seems almost appropriate. The Departed, an American remake of Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao, 2002), directed by Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak, was greeted by many as a return to form, as if the last 15 years of Scorsese’s career hadn’t been a series of virtuoso, chameleonlike experiments.

The appeal of Hong Kong genre cinema—Infernal Affairs included—is due to its dedication to the Old Hollywood formula: simplicity of technique, broadness of appeal, rigour of story craft, and adherence to archetypal. Infernal Affairs plays like a James Cagney-Humphrey Bogart vehicle shot with the style of a Sony commercial, and was made watchable largely by excellent, yet resolutely unshowy, acting by Tony Leung as Chan Wing Yan, a policeman undercover in a mob, Andy Lau as Lau Kin Ming, his opposite, a gangland mole in the police department, and Eric Tsang’s Hon Sam, a perpetually smiling, calmly malevolent godfather.

These three characters become William “Billy” Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), and Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), all hailing from the blue-collar, ethnic Irish suburbs of South Boston. What Scorsese and his Bostonian screenwriter William Monahan brought to the material was a sense of local, ethnic, macho culture missing from the original and, for the first hour, a steely sense of social folklore and personal drama, with many unsentimental, amusing observations on class and race in Boston. Scorsese introduces us to the fractured sensibility of the city via news footage of 1960s race riots and the commanding voice of Costello proclaiming “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me!” Costello, kingpin of the Irish mobsters, struts with untouchable confidence. In the late 1980s, he enters a grocery store, makes obscene advances on the owner’s teenage daughter, and recognises the young Colin Sullivan (Conor Donovan) as a boy of potential. (“You do well in school?” “Yeah.” “Good. So did I. They call that a paradox.”) Soon Costello lectures Colin and other talented tykes in the lore of tough-guy necessities: “When I was growing up, they would say you could become cops or criminals. But what I’m saying is this. When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”

Skip forward 15 years or so. Sullivan is in training to join the Massachusetts State Police; so is Costigan, a hot-headed young man whose mother is dying of cancer. Costigan’s uncle was a crime boss, but his father, despite being superlatively tough, rejected the mob and worked his whole life as an airport baggage handler. His mother was from the more genteel end of town. Costigan thus loathes his blue-blood relatives and his criminal kin equally. He is soon picked as a perfect candidate by two senior officers—the fatherly Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the provocative, profane Dignam (Mark Wahlberg)—to become a mole. Dignam digs at Costigan’s psyche and generally takes the endemic Yankee-Irish verbal abuse to new heights of hilarious insult. Underneath this is a rock-solid commitment to the job at hand, and Costigan is offered some “real police work.” Costigan is to appear to be kicked off the force and jailed for assault, then seek a way to infiltrate the mob.

Simultaneously, Sullivan, smooth and confident, is earmarked for rapid promotion. He joins a squad headed by Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) that is looking to take Costello down. Each man soon is engaged in a paranoid duel with a mystery doppelganger burrowed into their home organisation and threatening the other’s safety. Each has a quasipaternal relationship with the monstrous Costello. In this way, with its highly Irish flavour, The Departed becomes a modern-dress remake of Gangs of New York; as a father figure like Bill the Butcher, resplendent in his masculine prowess, Costello lolls with multiple women in bed (under a shower of cocaine no less) dealing with an inadequate son who is not what he pretends to be—except here the son is split into good and bad twins.

All three figures are characterized with a depth Infernal Affairs avoided—which in the case of Costello doesn’t achieve much. Initially presented as a cool, intelligent, but utterly savage enforcer, rising in the opening as the cynical voice of a tough and fractured city, Costello enjoys deft verbal tussles with Queenan and Dignam and provokes the local clergy with amusingly vicious admonitions about pederasty and breaking one’s vows with pretty nuns. Yet he dissolves into a dull-witted, cartoonish monster—much, but not all, of which is the fault of Nicholson and his latter-day propensity for showboating. Unlike other corrupt surrogate father figures in Scorsese’s films—Bill the Butcher or Paulie or Jimmy the Gent or even Eddie Felson—Costello is required chiefly to be a monstrous foil in a melodrama.

Sullivan, like a classic Scorsese antihero, is motivated by desire to get ahead; for him, being both an exceptionally good policeman and Costello’s agent are complementary ideas. He eyes the gold dome of the city hall with hope and ambition, and buys a swanky flat in sight of it. But inner tension manifests itself in a crippled sexuality. With wit and skill, he romances Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), a state-employed psychiatrist who deals with police trauma and violent offenders. He coaxes her into a relationship that is troubled by his lack of emotional clarity and bouts of impotence. Costello doesn’t help by making sexual threats towards Madolyn if Sullivan fails him. Costigan has to visit Madolyn both to maintain his cover—she is his court-appointed shrink—and as a relief valve for his assailed psyche. Costigan, whilst in her office, is a ball of scarcely compressed rage and desperation, demanding drugs to numb him from his sleepless agitation. Soon he’s yanking off her underwear when she succumbs to a moment of relationship jitters. The idea of two men sharing a life so tightly interwoven that they sleep with the same woman and still don’t know each other’s identity, seems fit for a truly mind-warping psychodrama, but this doesn’t eventuate. Madolyn, despite her spunk and intelligence, doesn’t get to be much more than sideshow in this orgy of Men’s Business.

Costigan deals drugs with his dimwitted cousin Sean (Kevin Corrigan) and gets a reputation for impressive violence. When he beats up two foot soldiers from Mafia-controlled Providence who are trying to enforce protection in Boston, Costello informs him that unless he intercedes, Costigan will undoubtedly end up whacked. In return for leaving the two hoods in a park with bullets in their heads, Costigan is inducted into Costello’s entourage of thick thugs, which includes his intimidating, but soft-spoken lieutenant, Mr. French (Ray Winstone). Costello’s big score for the year is a stolen shipment of microprocessors that he proceeds to sell to some heavies paid by the Chinese government. Ellerby, Queenan, Dignam, and their men uneasily join to arrest them in the act, but Sullivan has given Costello a chance to make his deal (which is a scam anyway) and escape. With both sides realising they have rats in the ranks, an increasingly loopy Costello sniffs out his own men, most specifically new boy Costigan, whilst Sullivan finds himself handed the alienating but highly convenient task of seeking out the mole in the force. Sullivan promptly uses his new powers to have Queenan followed, hoping he’ll be seen meeting with his man in Costello’s mob.

This nearly works; when Queenan meets Costigan in an empty building, Sullivan has Costello’s boys descend on the locale. Costigan slips away, and the frustrated thugs throw a tight-lipped Queenan to his death from the window, prompting a gunfight with the cops watching for him. Most of the entertainment value of The Departed comes from its souped-up cast, all kept on their toes by Scorsese and armed with fierce dialogue by Monahan. For DiCaprio, it’s possibly the best performance of his career; his efforts to be tough in Gangs of New York and mercurial in The Aviator look pallid compared to the lean, mean, half-mad characterization he presents here of a guy with adrenalin so constantly drugging his synapses he can barely tell black from white anymore. Damon, though fine, has an easier time, largely because he’s played variations on this part before—a benign-seeming young man who is actually emotionally closed-off and inherently dangerous, with deep, underlying social and paternal resentments. It’s more impressive for him to play Jason Bourne, who has many of the same characteristics and is still our hero.

Many of the interchanges, particularly those involving Wahlberg’s salty mouth provide classic Scorsese macho confrontations, as cops and hoods gouge each other with insults and epithets, jockeying for supremacy of both competence and attitude, as when Dignam upbraids an incompetent surveillance with “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.” Much of this pleasure drains away in the plot-heavy second half, leaving behind the interesting social and character elements. After Queenan’s death, for which Sullivan is blamed, Dignam assaults him and resigns rather than hand over to Sullivan the password for Queenan’s encrypted computer files that contain Costigan’s details. Sullivan sets up Costello in a drug deal; most of the gang perish in the ensuing battle. Sullivan kills Costello himself. This is not so much because, as with Lau Kin Ming in Infernal Affairs, he realises he longs to be a cop and a good guy, but for the less weirdly positive reason that Sullivan feels betrayed on discovering, thanks to Costigan’s digging, that Costello is a federal informant and also is resentful of his brutal father figure.

When Costello, coughing up blood, says Sullivan’s been like a son to him, the young man provokes him by suggesting Costello needed a surrogate son because, despite his self-trumpeting sexual capacity, he’s been shooting blanks all these years. The shot Costello takes at him gives Sullivan final cause to fill his abusive patriarch with lead. Costigan can finally come in from the cold. Waiting in Sullivan’s office, he recognises an envelope he himself had written on containing all the Costello’s crew personal details on Sullivan’s desk. Costigan realises Sullivan is the mole and flees. Sullivan panics and deletes Costigan’s records from Queenan’s computer. Costigan tries to shake Sullivan’s life to pieces by mailing to Madolyn a recording he dug up of Costello and Sullivan talking.

Madolyn is, of course, less than ecstatic. Sullivan goes to a meeting arranged with Costigan, but he has no intention of making a deal, intending instead to take him by surprise and arrest him. “Just fucking kill me!” Sullivan begs. “I am killing you.” Costigan assures him. But Costigan gets his brains splattered all over the wall of an elevator by another cop, Barrigan (James Budge Dale), who reveals himself as a second Costello plant; he also kills Brown (Anthony Anderson), one of the few other officers who remembered Costigan from training. Sullivan shoots Barrigan in the head, eliminating the last known link of him to Costello. Costigan is given a hero’s funeral after Sullivan reports he and Brown died trying to take in the mole Barrigan.

This almost parodic proliferation of brainless bodies is more or less where Infernal Affairs concludes. Instead of giving us two sequels, however, as followed that film, The Departed delivers a sharp coda in which Sullivan, thinking he has triumphed, continues his everyday life, but returns home from grocery shopping to find Dignam waiting in his apartment, armed with a silenced pistol. Dignam has worked out everything and determined to remedy it in the most direct fashion by shooting a resigned Sullivan in the head. The final shot shows a rat crawling across the rail of Sullivan’s apartment, backgrounded by the gold dome towards which Sullivan had looked with hope.

It’s a symbolic joke that sums up the film itself—gritty, cynical, and funny, but also facile and broad. The self-parodying trend is extended in Nicholson’s performance as Costello literally sniffs out a rat and in one scene, appears bathed in blood with no explanation, like a Monty Python gag. Scorsese’s stylistic imagination is almost entirely quelled, except for some self-referencing snatches, as when his camera makes a lateral dolly past DiCaprio doing push-ups in his cell, a Cape Fear quote. Apparently all a Scorsese film is, according to some people, is swearing, shootings in the head, and Rolling Stones songs played loud. Scorsese felt empowered to make a good genre film by the legacies of directors like Robert Aldrich, Samuel Fuller, and Don Siegel, and his hand on the helm ensures the film is constructed with some fearsomely good editing and structuring.

The experimentation in story-through-montage in Goodfellas, Casino, and Kundun proves useful for commercial purposes in the fleet-footed skill with which The Departed sets up and puts in motion its story. But with its overly long, overly tricky story, and relatively bland style, The Departed is very much a well-done genre film of today, not one of the superbly done genre films of yesterday. In Scorsese’s best works, social context is everything, but in The Departed, it is thoroughly subordinated to constructing a cops-and-robbers drama. Yet, The Departed feels unusually true to the zeitgeist in that it depicts an age where officialdom is infiltrated by the self-serving and disloyal, and the true warriors are isolated, frustrated, and doomed. The Departed is Scorsese’s most financially successful film to date, and seems set for the foreseeable future to remain his most mainstream-appreciated work. If nothing else, it stands as the most honourably foul-mouthed Best Picture winner ever. And yet it’s a minor film in his career, one of his least fully realised, garbled in theme and story.

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