Earlier this summer,sitting in a London cinema for a screening of Denis Villeneuve’s hugely anticipated, pandemic-delayed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel “Dune,” I found myself unexpectedly close to tears. I’d not been in a movie theater in almost two years, and I’d forgotten what it was like. Forgotten how the light inside a big auditorium always feels dusty and late-night weary, no matter what time it is. Forgotten the particular smell of popcorn and carpet cleaner, how it evokes a childhood memory of brushing my fingers across the static on the glass of a just-switched-on TV set; forgotten the vertiginous scale of the space and the screen.
When the film began, I heard the thump of a heartbeat working in counterpoint to my own, bursts of percussive discordance as Hans Zimmer’s score cut in, and then harsh desert light was burning the backs of my eyes and I was somewhere else entirely, witnessing the brutal quelling of an insurgency on a distant planet — and after a while, I realized I was whispering, “Oh, my God” under my breath over and over again. Afterward, I walked along empty streets with my head full of deserts and burning date palms, vast ships, monstrous sandworms and a sense of wonderment that the book’s visions had been so exquisitely realized. Josh Brolin, who plays the warrior-minstrel Gurney Halleck in the movie, took a lifelong “Dune”-fan friend to a screening in New York, and at the end of the movie the friend started screaming: “That was it! That was it! That’s what I saw! That’s what I saw when I was a kid!”
Featuring stars like Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Stellan Starsgard, Zendaya and Javier Bardem, “Dune” was three and a half years in production and cost approximately $165 million to make. Forgoing the green screens of most sci-fi movies, Villeneuve shot on location in the deserts of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, where actors sweated in rubber costumes in 120-degree heat. When Warner Brothers announced that “Dune” would be streamed on HBO Max at the same time as its U.S. theatrical release, Villeneuve wrote a blistering response in Variety denouncing their action. “It was for my mental sanity,” he later told me. “I was so angry, bitter and wounded,” he said, of the studio’s choice. He understood the pressures of the pandemic, but he had made “Dune” as a love letter to the big screen. The decision to stream the film seemed to Villeneuve symptomatic of threats to the cinematic tradition itself, which he sees as fulfilling an ancient human need for communal storytelling.
All this made me nervous as I sat down at my kitchen table for my first interview with the director, conducted over Zoom because of the pandemic. I knew Villeneuve was a fiercely idealistic figure, and expected a forbidding auteur. But when his face appeared on my laptop screen, I was struck by how kind it seemed, and slightly melancholy. His hair and beard were lockdown-disheveled, and he wore a dark open-necked shirt and a pair of earbuds. Speaking in a soft Québécois accent, he apologized for his English and initially radiated an air of cautious politesse. I later discovered that he was as anxious about the interview as I was. When I held up my “Star Wars” mug to demonstrate my sci-fi credentials, his eyebrows rose high over his half-rim glasses, and he grinned.
An environmental fable, a parable of the oil economy, a critique of colonialism, a warning against putting your faith in charismatic leaders, “Dune” tells the story of Paul Atreides, an aristocratic teenager who travels to a distant land; joins with a desert people, the Fremen; becomes their messiah; and leads them into revolt against their colonial oppressors. Paul’s story recalls “Lawrence of Arabia” (Herbert was influenced by T.E. Lawrence), and “Lawrence” came to mind as I watched “Dune.” Each movie is a character-driven geopolitical epic, each was filmed in Jordan’s Wadi Rum and each is a spectacularly beautiful cinematic ode to the desert.
Villeneuve’s movies have often revisited desert landscapes: salt flats in Utah in his first movie, “Un 32 Août Sur Terre” (“August 32nd on Earth”); the Middle Eastern desert of “Incendies”; the Chihuahuan desert for “Sicario”; the sands under postapocalyptic fog shrouding Las Vegas in “Blade Runner 2049.” When he told me his impulse to make “Dune” was just a pretext to go back deep into the desert, he laughed. Villeneuve’s laughter, I would learn, often precedes statements of searching honesty. He loves deserts for the feeling of isolation they bring, he explained, how they “reflect your interiority, and the deeper you go in the desert, the deeper you go in yourself. That kind of introspection always had a very deep melancholic impact on me,” he added. “In the desert I feel strangely at home.” He drew a parallel with Paul Atreides, played by Chalamet in “Dune.” “When Paul is for the first time in contact with the desert,” Villeneuve explained, it “feels strangely familiar. That for me is the moment that deeply moves me. The fact that he is in a totally alien landscape, but he feels at home.”
Villeneuve has a particular talent for making the alien feel familiar. Working with renowned cinematographers like Roger Deakins, Greig Fraser and Bradford Young, he has an extraordinary ability to ground sci-fi in a sense of lived reality. When I watched his 2016 movie, “Arrival,” in which Amy Adams’s academic linguist learns to communicate with visiting aliens, its monolithic spaceships hanging above lush valleys and rolling fog felt impossible but somehow absolutely plausible. “Arrival” can also be read as an exquisite allegory for the power of cinema: Fragile humans in a dark space face a luminous screen behind which strange forms move and speak in a visual language that, once deciphered, transforms the world.
“He’s in that rarefied Christopher Nolan space,” Timothée Chalamet told me. “The space of directors that can make movies at a huge level but not lose any of the sort of — I don’t say indie qualities, but whatever, auteur qualities.” From the devastating exploration of trauma, identity and the legacies of violence in “Incendies” (2010), to the claustrophobia of “Enemy” (2013), in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s character battles what appears to be his subconscious in the person of his own double, to the disturbing exploration of extraterritorial state power in “Sicario” (2015) and the meditation on objectification and misogyny of “Blade Runner 2049,” Villeneuve’s movies pay painstaking attention to character and place and are always profoundly intimate, no matter how epic their scale. He moves easily among genres — his love of American pop cinema, he told me, made him abolish these boundaries in his mind. He hates snobbism, he hates boxes. He sighs when he says the word “genre.”
Making “Dune” presented vast challenges, not least of which was the novel’s history as a graveyard of cinematic hopes — to such an extent that the phrase “the Curse of ‘Dune”’ haunts the internet. David Lynch was so unhappy with the cut of his 1984 adaptation, which starred Kyle MacLachlan and an infamously codpieced Sting, that he disavowed it; Alejandro Jodorowsky’s detailed plans for a 10-plus-hour version featuring Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí unsurprisingly never got off the ground. (“I’m not sure if he was interested to adapt ‘Dune’ more than to do a fantastic Jodorowsky movie,” Villeneuve mused. “I don’t know if he was really interested by ‘Dune.’ And Lynch, it’s a bit the same way, I think, you know?”) Villeneuve doesn’t think he’s the only person who could have done “Dune” justice, but for him, he said, it was “about the book, the book, the book.” He also wanted to make his film as grounded in reality as possible, eschewing the supernatural. Paul Atreides might have visions of the future, which are heightened when he is exposed to Arrakis’s most valuable commodity, a compound mined from the desert sands called spice, but though he’s an extraordinary being, he isn’t “a wizard,” Villeneuve says. “He’s just someone who is very sensitive to a psychedelic substance.”
Villeneuve and Zendaya on the set of “Dune” in Jordan in April 2019.Credit…Chiabella James
Villeneuve was 14 when he first saw the book, an edition with an arresting cover in the small library near his school in Trois-Rivières, Quebec: the face of a dark-skinned man with piercing blue eyes against a remote desert background. It was beautiful, he told me, lifting a copy with the same cover from his desk. He has kept it through the years, and is using it to write the second movie (“Dune” is a famously complex novel, and Villeneuve only agreed to adapt it if it could be broken into two films). Looking at it even now evokes the same emotions he felt back then: “mystery, isolation, loneliness.” Villeneuve has dreamed of making “Dune” since he was a teenager; he tried to make his movie as “close to the dream as possible, and it was very difficult, because the dreams of a teenager are very totalitarian. I was not expecting it would be so difficult to please that guy!”
In our conversations, Villeneuve was passionate, extremely funny and honest to the point of vulnerability. Soon it felt so much like talking with an old friend that I started telling him stories about my own life. When I asked him about his childhood, I apologized, explaining that I get impatient when people ask about my own childhood to gain insight into my work; it has always seemed reductive. But then Villeneuve gave me a lesson in how early memories can shape creative practice. As a young boy, he told me, he’d sit with his mother watching a children’s television show called “Sol et Gobelet.” A low-budget set, a black backdrop. “Two clowns having adventures together in an imaginary world. I know deep in my soul that I owe a lot to these two guys.” He said that the show changed his life, that you could see his cinematic influences as a cross-mix of these clowns and the work of other filmmakers. Their level of suggestion, their theatricality, the way they played with the theater of convention, their minimalism — there’s even a direct connection between the black nothingness of the show’s backdrop and Roger Deakins’s red-desert set in “Blade Runner 2049”: “Where there was nothing, I put sand on the floor, and Roger filled the space with a kind of smoke, a specific smoke, so it created infinity. And I remember having the best time, and it was that feeling of infinity, and the tension that emptiness created.”
Villeneuve grew up in Gentilly, a small village near the St. Lawrence River whose wide horizons gave him a predilection to dream. His love of sci-fi began with a gift from his Aunt Huguette when he was 7: three cardboard boxes stuffed with French sci-fi comics, “Métal Hurlant,” “Pilote” and others, distant worlds brought into existence by Moebius, Enki Bilal and Jean-Claude Mézières, Philippe Druillet. Soon he was writing sci-fi stories on his grandfather’s typewriter — they were no good, he tells me, miming tearing out the page, with an exasperated “Bof!”
Villeneuve’s deep love of nature, his craving to be in contact with it, came from his maternal grandmother. She was a paragon of nurture — he smiled with nostalgia at the image he remembers of her gardening: “a big butt in flowers!” Both of his grandmothers were “strong characters. And very opposite. One of them was an operatic character, the other one was a benevolent, warm grandmother, it’s fantastic. I realize I receive so much from them, but there are so many — there are a lot of neuroses.” In his earliest discussions with the screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, all were clear that Villeneuve wanted to foreground the story’s women, particularly Lady Jessica, “a very complex character — she has multiple agendas.” As Paul’s mother, a duke’s partner and a member of the ancient and mysterious female order of the Bene Gesserit — the most significant power in the story — she is “the architect, the thinker, the reason why this novel exists,” Villeneuve told me, adding: “She is the one who is the teacher. She is the guide, she’s the one with the inspiration.”
The Bene Gesserit are not benevolent shapers of history. Paul Atreides is part of their breeding program, his messianic role on Arrakis a result of their seeding the planet with myths thousands of years earlier. As Villeneuve sees it, he’s a victim of religious colonialism, full of ancestral voices talking with him. I thought of Paul when Villeneuve spoke of his own fascination with the baggage of generational memory. Villeneuve doesn’t consider himself just the product of his grandmothers and great-grandmothers; he has them inside him. “I have their being. I have their fears. I have their weight of existence.”
He spent much of his childhood on the bench watching other kids playing hockey. He doesn’t blame the coach. “I was probably,” he said, amused, “one of the 10 worst hockey players of all time in Canada. I was, like, so clueless with the puck, you know?” The best days were those of heavy rain, when sport was impossible and he could retreat into a book-filled room at home. It was pure paradise to close the door and spend the whole day reading sci-fi novels.
One day at school, Villeneuve was tapped on his shoulder. “See that guy over there?” another pupil informed him. “He’s mad like you. He wants to do ‘Star Wars’ in his basement next summer. So I think you should meet him.” Pretty soon he was best friends with a kid named Nicolas Kadima. Where other boys their age were smoking weed and discovering girls and soccer, Villeneuve and Kadima were “clueless. We were like cinema monks.” They spent their nights watching Eisenstein and Godard, were obsessed with Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Kubrick. They weren’t filmmaking (“We were too lazy for that”), but they wrote screenplays, drew storyboards — Villeneuve still has some that Kadima drew for “Dune” — and they dreamed.
“It was intense,” Villeneuve recalled fondly. “There’s something there that was, like, pure, and beautiful in a way.” As soon as you take a camera, you learn humility. “But before that moment, you think you’re the next Kubrick.” He and Kadima stopped going to church, he told me, hoping to be excommunicated, but were “ready to give our blood to the gods of cinema, like Coppola, like Spielberg, Scorsese.” (He admitted that nowadays, when he runs into some of his idols, he is thrilled. He becomes a child again, he explained. “I can start to cry, sometimes. The first time I met Spielberg, I cried — I mean, not in front of him,” he adds quickly. “But I cried.”)
He was expected to become a biologist, but decided to follow his interest in film. “There was something that needed to get out,” he said, “and I would have got depressed if it didn’t get out, that’s the truth.” After studying communications and film at the University of Quebec in Montreal and winning a Radio-Canada filmmaking competition, Villeneuve began working in what he describes as the “beautiful laboratory” of the Québécois documentary tradition. What does it feel like, I asked him, to have moved away from his cultural and creative roots? “It’s a big wound,” he said, seriously. “I feel a crack in myself.” But he felt he had to leave. Until the 1960s filmmaking in Canada focused on the documentary form, he said, and fiction was relatively unknown. “I realized at one point that — and that’s very arrogant,” he admitted — “nobody could teach me anything here, I had to go outside.”
Today, he said, living in Montreal but working in Hollywood, he’s asked on an almost daily basis: “So, Denis? When are you coming back to make a movie here? We are looking forward to seeing a movie in French.” But, he said, “the thing is that I feel that I am at home.” It was American movies that moved him when he was young, so much so he was nicknamed Spielberg at school. Only later did he become interested in European cinema. (Villeneuve discovered the French New Wave as a teenager after watching François Truffaut in Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”) With his first feature film, he confessed: “I was trying to be closer to my roots. My influences were more European. But at one point there was a moment where I said: Stop that crap! That’s not what I am! And when I realized that, it was so much freedom.” The moment he understood that at heart he was an American director “was the beginning of pure happiness. And that’s where I started to have fun with cinema. I think I started to make better films. That’s where I started to become a real director, I think.”
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer” is the most famous line in “Dune.” It appears on innumerable motivational posters, has been inked by tattooists into uncountable arms. It’s part of the litany of the Bene Gesserit Order. Because fear obliterates thought, the litany holds, it must be mastered and discarded. But for Villeneue, fear is a generative emotion, and cinema is what he has used and continues to use to defeat it. He sees cinema — not just watching movies, but also the act of making them — as the force that drives him out of his shell, brings him into contact with other people. Without cinema, he told me, he could be easily trapped in a hole with the door locked, afraid of the world. “It brings me,” he said, “solace.” His forehead furrowed. “Solace, or … I do not know what is the right word.” He looked worried. “Solace? What does it mean, solace, exactly?” He searched forit on his computer. It was the right word, of course.
Risk and danger are, for him, intrinsic to creation. One of his favorite movies is a 1956 documentary called “Le Mystère Picasso,” by the French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot. It was “like a bomb in my soul,” he told me. In it, a shirtless Picasso, then in his mid-70s, paints upon a screen filmed from behind so that the artist is invisible, and all you can see is the work coming into existence, line by line, brush stroke by brush stroke. “He can do a painting and then add something, and then add something, and add something, then says, It’s a piece of [expletive] — and we are talking about three weeks of work — and then he destroys it, and does it again, 20 times.” Watching it moved him deeply. “Because it shows that creativity is an act of vulnerability, where your path to success is narrow, and you have to let yourself experiment.”
Villeneuve’s insistence on real-world locations for “Dune” led him to spend days in a helicopter on reconnaissance flights over the desert. “When you go up in the air, there are things that reveal themselves, like some twin mountains that look like two old grandmothers, that I feel were so linked with the nature of the movie, and they became kind of characters for me,” he explained. The movie’s cinematographer, Greig Fraser, came to the project straight after working on “The Mandalorian,” a “Star Wars” series filmed almost entirely in a virtual studio where real-time computer rendering of scenery moves seamlessly on screens behind the cast. This process gives directors absolute control over the environment — it “takes out the problem of [expletive] that goes on in the world, like cloud cover, like someone parking the portaloo in the wrong spot,” as Fraser puts it. When Fraser offered some of this technology to Villeneuve, he declined. Villeneuve needed to shoot the movie in real desert landscapes, the director told me, “for my own mental sanity, to be able to inspire myself to find back that feeling I was looking for of isolation, of introspection.”
Villeneuve wanted tactility, not control. He knew that real locations would fuel the creativity of his cinematographer and actors too. The sets in Budapest were constructed as massive environments and rooms so that their physical reality might spark ideas, bring something into the actors’ performances. “You cannot do that with green screens,” he said. “It’s not possible. Not for me. Maybe some people can, but not me.” Usually, when filming on location, Greig Fraser told me, everyone always has backup plans, just in case. But with Denis, he said, the philosophy was the opposite. “Well, in Abu Dhabi, coming from the top — and that’s Denis — we all went: ‘No. We’re not going to. We’re basically going to walk out on the gangplank, and we’re going to give ourselves no options.’ When I say no options, well, first of all we had a fantastic script, with fantastic actors, in fantastic costume, in a fantastic location — I mean, it’s not like we didn’t have any options. We removed the noise of backups.”
The “Dune” production designer Patrice Vermette told me they used Google Earth to look for the right location for the scenes on Arrakis: a desert with rock formations that the Fremen would use as refuges from the searing, inimical heat. They found promising candidates in Iran, Chad, Mauritania, Libya. “Pretty difficult,” he admitted. They ended up in Wadi Rum, “like a trade show of rock formations,” but it lacked dunes. The team collected samples of sand from Jordan in water bottles so they could match its color to another location, and ended up in the vast dune fields of the Rub’ Al Khali desert in Abu Dhabi.
Villeneuve’s insistence on filming in real-world environments was shaped by his early work as a documentarian. In the early 1990s he traveled to Ellesmere Island as part of a small unit with the Québécois filmmaker Pierre Perrault to shoot a poetic natural history documentary, called “Cornouailles,” about musk oxen defending their tundra territories. “It’s about French Canadians and America,” he told me, wryly. He was there to bring the tripods and make the soup, but the experience was transformative. “I saw things there,” he said, “that I will never see again in my life. And that I will never experience again. To walk inside a glacier, things that are difficult to describe — but it was like being on another planet.” Like the desert, the tundra had a deep psychological impact on him, instilling a sense of humility, the feeling that he was “seeing the earth without any skin. It’s like you are at the core, you are in contact with time … with infinity and time.”
The “Cornouailles” shoot taught Villeneuve to embrace the exigencies of a real-life location where “every day the landscape in front of you is totally different, according to light and the nature of the elements” — and in a more existential sense, the tundra revealed to him how small and insignificant we are, an experience familiar to many of those involved with “Dune.” Patrice Vermette told me that on entering Wadi Rum, “there is this thing that hits you — you’re humbled by the magnitude. It was a spiritually amazing experience just to be there.” Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who plays Liet-Kynes, the imperial planetologist, found the shoot psychologically as well as physiologically affecting: “It was intense to begin with, but of course the body just sort of adapts. And once you make peace with it — and I think that’s the glorious thing about exactly what this story is about — it’s once you go, ‘It’s hot, and there’s nothing I can do about this, the only thing I can do is sweat, right? And drink water, and remember to piss when I can,’” she says, she started to see these landscapes as magical, mysterious, alarming.
These grueling location shoots forged a strong sense of community among cast, crew and production. “If we were shooting in obscure rock formations in Jordan, you would see Denis picking up a camera battery,” Chalamet explains. “Everyone taking their part and helping out.” Duncan-Brewster agrees, pointing out that for Villeneuve, “it doesn’t matter who it is: As long as you are on the team, you are team. You could be the person who has picked up a bottle of water and put it in a bin, right up to Denis’s right-hand person, and he’s still there 100 percent.”
Villeneuve inspires intense devotion in those who work with him. “An incredible human being,” Josh Brolin told me. Timothée Chalamet described him as “one of the most beautiful souls.” “A magician,” Rebecca Ferguson maintained. “Genius.” The screenwriter Jon Spaihts described him as “generous and humble and charming and everything you could want in a creative partner.” The only person who told me anything different was the film’s production designer, Patrice Villette, one of Villeneuve’s longtime collaborators and friends. “He’s a monster,” he told me, solemnly, before bursting out laughing at the ludicrousness of this statement.
At the heart of “Dune,” Villeneuve explained, is the necessity for adaptation: how evolution requires contact with others. Paul comes of age through adapting to Arrakis’s hostile desert environment, freeing himself from the past by joining with the Fremen community and learning from them. “To me it’s a beautiful thing, and it sounds probably naïve and simple,” he told me, “but we need other people to evolve.” Villeneuve has a fascination with the charged space created when one culture encounters another, and the complex ways in which selfhood and identity shift and move on both sides in response.
But it’s not just identity that is negotiated in that space: It’s also where creativity is realized. Artistic creation is born in the space between a person and a landscape, between self and other, between minds engaged upon the same project. However much a film might be an individual director’s dream, the deepest joy of cinema for Villeneuve is the magic that comes from collaboration. For Villeneuve, the process is bodily, instinctive and intuitive. When the pandemic made it impossible to work in the same room as his long-term editor, Joe Walker, he found virtual working taxing. “It’s not the same,” he maintained. “It’s like playing music.” While editing, you need to “feel the other, feel his reaction, feel your own reaction. There are so many ideas that Joe and I have, I don’t know if it’s his idea or my idea — it comes from the addition of us both being in the room. Which is by far my favorite thing about cinema.”
Josh Brolin spoke with amused fondness of the consequences of Villeneuve’s need for physical presence while collaborating. “We’re friends and we’re close, but when you get a call at 3 in the morning and he says: ‘My friend, I just had a dream. I had a dream. … I had whole new idea for Gurney, and I think that you should come over here and we should talk.” When Brolin replied, “No, no, no, just tell me!” he says, Villeneuve “was like, ‘No, you need to come over here.’ I was like: ‘No, man! Just tell me! It’s the middle of the night, I don’t wanna come over.’ And he was like: ‘No, no, no! It doesn’t work!’ In the end, Brolin went over and they talked and wrote together. With anyone else, Brolin said, this kind of behavior would be an affectation, but not Villeneuve. “To me Denis is one of these guys that you know he’s truly the black sheep. Like, without this, what would have happened, what would he have done? Without being able to utilize his imagination, his sensitivities, his vulnerabilities, his, you know, I don’t know man, you know? He’s just. … He’s off, Denis is off. And in a way that I find so beautiful and so ingratiating and so gentle, even though he’s yelled at me and I’ve yelled back at him, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because it comes from a place of real love.”
One afternoon, I told Villeneuve about how, as a child, I developed an obsession with the nuclear-power stations at Sizewell in Suffolk, England, visible from the seaside town where we spent our family holidays. I was transfixed by the unimaginable power and peril it held, and I told him that his vast ships in “Arrival” and “Dune” gave me an eerily similar sensation. I knew that Villeneuve grew up near such a plant and wondered if there was a connection. Villeneuve laughed with surprise and delight. “You said that, and I feel two wires touching in my brain — I never made the connection,” he said. But, yes, he went on, there was a link between what he felt at the plant’s two concrete towers and the ships built for “Arrival” and “Dune.” “There’s something about that terror that from a subconscious point of view I’m bringing back to the screen.” He remembered his father’s reassurances that the power plant was safe, but it always felt an act of faith that all that power would be held there safely. “I was born in a place where there were two churches,” he explained, “the church and the nuclear-power plant.” The links among risk, fear, generation, creation, destruction and memory run old and deep in Villeneuve. Despite the threat of nuclear apocalypse, “we were innocent,” Villeneuve said, of his childhood in Gentilly. “We had hope.” Hope, as the activist Mariame Kaba has said, is a discipline, and it’s one that’s hard to maintain. To keep hope for the future alive we have to consider it as still uncertain, have to believe that concerted, collective human action might yet avert disaster.
“Dune” the movie has clear contemporary relevance: It’s an ecological epic that warns against religious and imperialist dogma and portrays a people suffering under colonial occupation, a film whose main character is forced to adapt to a new reality or die. When Villeneuve describes “Dune” as a “coming-of-age story,” it feels far more than the coming-of-age of Paul Atreides. The phrase speaks more generally of our need to adapt and evolve, shed the ghosts of how we have always lived, in order to survive. For the strangest thing happened to me after watching “Dune” this summer: It slipped into a different part of my memory than films usually do. It felt like news. Images from it have unexpectedly become part of the way I’ll always remember this summer and fall: images of burning ships and glittering sands interspersed with forest fires, the terrible legacies of colonial crimes, failed wars, the constant drumbeat of the pandemic, waves of religious and neo-religious fervor spurred by societal inequities and the constant, dreadful background knowledge that the climate is breaking down around us. “Dune” was always an allegorical novel; sci-fi’s ability to hold up a mirror darkly to culture is one of its primary aims. But “Dune” the film has somehow become part of the world for me, less a reflection than a refraction of reality, burnished with desert dust and shadow.
Helen Macdonald is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of the best-selling memoir “H Is for Hawk” and the short-story collection “Vesper Flights.”