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‘Dune’ is a Sprawling Orientalist Fever Dream

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‘Dune’ is a Sprawling Orientalist Fever Dream
Dune feels like a beautifully composed excuse for white savior colonialism. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

The strangest thing about Denis Villeneuve’s Dune—or Dune: Part One, as it’s titled on screenis not anything that happens in the story, or that it took Hollywood so long to re-adapt Frank Herbet’s 1965 novel after the 1984 film by David Lynch. Rather, it’s that a new work based only on a single source can arrive amidst a sea of sequels and shared universes and still feel like it has its tendrils in so many other texts. Dune is enormous in scale, and that enormity is matched by its evocations of a vast and winding history of the Middle East—which is to say, the Middle East that has existed in the Western consciousness for decades, across books, films, video games and other media, all of which have cross-pollinated to create a nebulous identity. The film itself is mostly fine, with breathtaking visuals broken up by a less captivating story that often drags its feet (despite several great performances). But its place within Western traditions—both real and imagined—is strange, unsavory, and fascinating.

One of the rare Hollywood films where the story begins even before the studio logos, Dune kicks off with a harsh and mysterious whisper about dreams, before the Warner Bros. water tower slides across the screen. An odd introduction, though one that frames not only the story as a dream of sorts, but perhaps even the film’s making, as a studio product written, developed, budgeted (etcetera) with closed eyes, and heads filled with fantasies about Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia and Herbet’s novel, side by side with memories of mid-2000s American news broadcasts. These are all distinct entities which share similar aesthetic hallmarks vis-à-vis “the Muslim world,” with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Villeneuve’s film collapses this history—of Western media’s perspective on the Middle East—whether or not it means to.


Dune ★★1/2
(2.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson
Running time: 155 mins.


The film’s sprawling plot elements are established with more clarity and more panache than in Lynch’s version—action and dialogue stand in for dense exposition, while seeds are planted more carefully along the way, through character interactions. It wastes little time establishing who’s who, from the militaristic House Atreides—Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), their firm but kindly leader, his love Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of a secret matronly order, and their son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), a prince who searches for purpose and appears to dream of the future—to the desert planet Arrakis, where most of the action unfolds. Also known as “Dune,” the planet is littered with giant sand worms, populated by Bedouin-coded locals called the Fremen, and mined by colonial forces for a spice, “melange,” that’s part drug, part intergalactic fuel. The details are mostly unimportant, outside of knowing that an unseen Emperor has granted House Atreides the right to mine melange, thus replacing the gloomy House Harkonnen, led by a cartoonishly rotund Baron named Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård in an airy fatsuit).

The names and concepts date back to Herbert’s books, which were inspired by accounts of mid-19th century wars between Imperial Russia and Muslim tribes in the Caucasus, but over time, Arrakis has stood in for whatever conflict the Western world has wrought on “the desert”—call it prescient, or merely aware of the flow of history. The 1984 film, for instance, was a perfect match for the era’s Afghanistan conflict between American and Soviet forces. In the new version, the minor Fremen character Chani (Zendaya) hints at this dynamic in her opening voiceover. As she explains the recent history of her planet, and the handover of power from the Harkonnens, she wonders not about freedom, but about which colonial powers will rule them next.

In this vein, Dune: Part One is mapped onto the post-9/11 “forever wars.” Little in the plot needs to change for this to happen but some of the designs are tweaked specifically for this parallel, like the interiors of the bug-like helicopters, which closely resemble modern U.S. military equipment. Atreides’ weapons master Gurney Halleck feels plucked out of a modern Hollywood war film, between his gung-ho bloodlust and the tough presence of Josh Brolin, who Villeneuve previously cast as a CIA operative in 2015’s Sicario. The general attitude of House Atreides towards the Fremen is one of othership and disdain, unless of course someone like Duke Leto wants to harness their strategic power.

It’s an obvious and not altogether terrible approach to critiquing American militarism, but it soon breaks down in amusing fashion, when the father-son duo is revealed to have been coaxed into colonizing Arrakis, summoning forth the pervasive lie about the Bush administration being fooled into invading Iraq. Is it a stretch to draw such a comparison? Yes, and no. On one hand, the plot of Dune existed for nearly 40 years before the aforementioned events. On the other, such volatile subject matter is never far from the production’s mind, and the movie is, by its very nature, part of a larger history wherein images and stories about the Middle East are contorted, not only as a means to comment on the region, but to reaffirm the West’s conception of itself.

The blue-eyed, golden-haired Luke Skywalker was once a victim of the ruthless “Sand People,” monsters draped in Bedouin garb, and his heroism was partially established in contrast to their villainy. These optics exist all across western sci-fi, and while Dune: Part Two may eventually subvert them, Part One plays like an unapologetic fixture of that legacy. Lawrence of Arabia served as a partial inspiration for Herbet, so the story of T.E. Lawrence—a real person with real experiences—becomes watered down and takes the shape of Paul Atreides, who similarly wears desert clothing with the culturally appropriate fit, presaging his entrance into Fremen culture as their Western savior. However, unlike Lawrence, who travelled and studied extensively, Paul’s familiarity with Fremen customs is despite him having spent no time at all with the locals, who feature only briefly in the film, and are a mostly homogenous bunch, whose faces are obscured behind their keffiyeh. Most of what we learn about them in Part One is their combat rituals, and their prophecy that paves the way for the heroic ascendancy of the clairvoyant Paul, like a white Prophet Muhammad hearing the word of God. 

Perhaps the presence of more Middle Eastern actors might have helped balance some of this iffy-ness, but Hollywood has created few Middle Eastern stars despite making the region a frequent setting for the last 20 years, so it has a built-in excuse. Besides, Dune (much like Aladdin) isn’t exactly the kind of story that can be decoupled from its permeating orientalism, without which it would barely exist. However, while the characters and dialogue always circle this ugly dynamic, the film is actually at its most thematically effective when cinema’s otherwise most useful tools—people’s faces and their words—are removed entirely. Dune is spellbinding when it captures architecture shaped by oblique light, sleek ships gliding across an unforgiving desert, and enormous industrial machines extracting natural resources from beneath the sand. At 155 minutes in length, the film has plenty of room for such scenes, where individual characters are no longer the focus, and the terrain tells its own story. 

These images echo, more directly and more powerfully, the central conceit of colonial forces sucking a culture dry. Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser speak volumes with the way they portray scale, with human beings and their airships being dwarfed by these extraction devices, and the devices in turn looking minuscule and insignificant when the desert (via those gigantic sand worms) eventually strikes back and returns things to their natural order. 

If there’s a cut of Dune: Part One that’s all establishing and wide shots, it would probably play like a sci-fi remix of documentaries by Ron Fricke or Godfrey Reggio. It would also avoid silliness like composer Hans Zimmer—whose percussions are certainly propulsive—accompanying every third close up of Paul with vocals bordering ululating. Or the sloppiness of coding House Atreides as a Western military power while dressing their women in vaguely Middle Eastern clothes. Or the disappointment of carefully choreographed hand-to-hand fights lacking any real weight or impact (Jason Momoa’s energy notwithstanding, as Paul’s fantastically named mentor Duncan Idaho).

Almost every tangible fixture pales in comparison to the film’s haunting atmosphere, from the way its interior and exterior locations envelope the senses, to the way its premonitions create a haunting tapestry of pictures and ideas. These visions don’t quite work when they portray entire scenes, which have little bearing on this half of the story, but when Paul straddles the line of consciousness, these moments become fleeting and ethereal, as they portray impressionistic hints of people and events—or even design elements, like desert sandals or scarves twisting in the wind, brief shots which strip the film’s exoticism of displeasurable context, and briefly transform it into something dreamlike and inviting. That is, until the two-part saga’s awkward and tensionless midpoint jolts you awake.


Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Dune’ is a Sprawling Orientalist Fever Dream

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Parents, teachers push for prompt transition to elected Boston school committee

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Parents, teachers push for prompt transition to elected Boston school committee

Boston Public School parents, teachers and graduates called on city councilors to shift the mayor-appointed school committee to an elected body in a public hearing Monday, demanding follow-through on the resounding 79% memorandum voters passed on the identical ballot question in November’s election.

“With this appointed school system, I feel that my voice goes unheard,” said BPS parent Suleika Soto, summarizing what many petitioners highlighted: a lack of both accountability and communication from the current structure of the committee.

“We, the students, families, and educators are not the constituents of the Boston School Committee,” said BPS teacher Neema Avashia. “We find ourselves begging to be heard.”

The Boston School Committee is responsible for managing Boston Pubic Schools’ annual operating budget, hiring and overseeing the superintendent, and regulating policies and practices within city schools. Members of the 13-person council had been elected by city residents from 1982 until 1989, when voters decided to transition the council to a mayor-appointed body.

Question 3 on November’s ballot to restore the group back to an elected body got overwhelming support from voters, with more than 99,000 votes cast in favor of the change.

“What we have to do now is listen to what people have said and how loud they’ve said it,” said John Nucci, who served four years as the president of the Boston School Committee during its most recent era as an elected body.

The City Council provided an early draft of what the transition back to an elected body could look like. The first step, in January 2022, would maintain eight appointed members and add one member elected through the BPS student population. By January 2024, the body would become a hybrid mix of seven appointed members, one student-elected member and three at-large elected members. Finally, by 2026, the entire 13-person committee would consist of elected members.

But the question of how those members are elected is one of many details councilors will try to hammer out through future hearings and meetings. One topic of debate is whether the majority of committee members should represent specific districts, or act as at-large officials, representing the city as a whole.

Newly elected city councilor and former BPS teacher Erin Murphy suggested at least nine of the members should represent specific districts, fearing “many voices would be left out” if they don’t have specific representation.

Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau — a neutral party on the issue — cautioned that an elected governing body is not a guarantee for a representative body.

“Elections can reward the loudest voices and those with the most resources,” she said.

Councilors assured attendees this meeting will be the first of several on the issue before action.

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Maguire: Stand up for Boston students – be a substitute teacher

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Maguire: Stand up for Boston students – be a substitute teacher

I invite you to join me — if only for a day — in the best job a person could have: teaching. This year we are back to in-person learning, a goal for which the teachers have long strived. However, many teachers with underlying health concerns took leaves of absence. Some teachers in their 60s took early retirement. And the rest of us often have to take time off to either care for our own children and/or to quarantine due to close contact situations.

This year the Boston Public Schools is in great need for both short- and long-term substitute teachers. The need for substitute teachers in some schools is desperate as they need coverage for one in five classrooms.

Therefore I ask my fellow Bostonians to substitute for at least one day in our schools. Applicants can choose what days they work, where they work, what grades or subjects they would cover. Such selectability allows applicants to tailor their work with their personal responsibilities. Let me assure you, whatever time you have available, the BPS will have a spot for you.

Our traditional substitute pool is retired teachers. This year that pool has all but dried up. Concerns over COVID keep many of our retirees at home. Those who are still subbing are not enough to fill all of our vacancies. So who can help us now? I believe we have untapped resources in our local universities and in the Boston business community.

When the pandemic burst upon the scene in 2020, many medical and nursing students were fast-tracked into full-time positions to meet the sudden and enormous need for more doctors and nurses. I am asking the local schools of education to do the same right now to help us fill our vacancies. The colleges have eager aspiring teachers. Putting the two together is a classic win-win.

I am also calling upon the Boston business community. Over the years, many businesses have used their corporate retreat time for community building. They come into our school for a day of service. Such days traditionally entailed painting classrooms or helping to plant a garden. This year, why not come into the classrooms and share your knowledge with our students?

Accountants could come into a math class and tell the students how what they are learning now could lead to good jobs later. Graphic designers could tell students how art and computer science classes blend into an exciting career. Students love hearing from adults in their community. Such contact makes their learning tangible instead of theoretical.

You could talk about how you got to your current career — was it what you always wanted to do or did you take many roads on your journey? If you have seventh or eighth graders, share your hobbies, your travels, your culture — this age craves exposure to the world around them. If you are in an elementary school you can read your favorite book, talk about your favorite games as child, bring your best Dad jokes — these kids just want to feel like you like them.

If you are worried about what substitute teaching would be like and would you be good at it, let me assure you that all you need is an open mind and a kind heart. When you enter the school building, you will be given a substitute folder. In it will be all the materials you will need for the day: seating charts, class lists, assignments and directions.

My own career began as a substitute teacher. I wasn’t quite Glenn Holland in “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” but I was a young man who thought substitute teaching would be a good way to earn some money while I studied for law school. And like Mr. Holland, I fell in love with a job I never knew I wanted. Twenty-eight years later, I can tell you that I love the job more now than on day one. I invite you to experience this joy for yourself.

Substitute teaching in Boston is not volunteering, you will get paid. If you work one day at a time, the pay is $170 per diem. If you work in the same class for a longer period of time, greater than 25 school days, the pay increases to $330 a day.

So go to bostonpublicschools.org/jobs and help our schools, ours students and our teachers. We need you now more than ever.


Michael J. Maguire teaches Latin at Boston Latin Academy and serves on the Executive Board of the Boston Teachers Union.

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Patriots activate LB Jamie Collins off injured reserve before Bills game

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Patriots activate LB Jamie Collins off injured reserve before Bills game

Last week at practice, Patriots safety Devin McCourty joked to Jamie Collins it was good to see him return after his  “three-week vacation,” a dig at Collins’ recent stay on injured reserve.

As of Monday night, play time was officially over.

The Patriots activated Collins off IR on Monday.  Collins had missed every game since hurting his ankle during a Week 9 win at Carolina. Entering kickoff in Buffalo, the veteran linebacker had totaled seven tackles, a sack and one interception over five games appearances.

The Pats signed him in early October, after Collins received his release from Detroit. The 32-year-old has played inside and outside linebacker in reserve action.

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