Religion & Liberty Online

Does Hollywood love beauty more than profit?

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve dazzles audiences and critics alike with genre films where you wouldn’t expect to find much love. What is his secret?

Read More…

Beauty has the power to spellbind everyone—the proof is Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. His last three movies, Dune (2021), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Arrival (2016), have earned him a reputation as a visionary and a sensitive director, despite science fiction as his genre, which normally is considered either too sophisticated for the broad audience to follow or too simplistic to be worth attention, instantly forgotten. Yet these films are loved by critics, the earlier two having three Oscar wins out of 13 nominations, while Dune has already been voted by fans #144 in the IMDb 250 “top rated” films of all time, a measure of passion at least.

These movies are so beautiful that wasting perhaps a hundred million dollars only makes them more attractive. Dune has grossed $330M globally but failed to reach $100M in America, against a budget of $165M, which suggests about as much again for the ad campaign, to say nothing of costs related to the movie’s being delayed a year during the epidemic. Dunewould have to make twice as much to cover its total production costs, because half the money stays in theaters, and it would have to make a lot more than that to be really profitable.

But this is nothing compared to Blade Runner 2049, which made under $260M worldwide, again, failing to get to $100M in America against a bigger budget than Dune’s, $185M. Hollywood is supposed to be obsessed with profits and, indeed, capitalism tends to be described that way, so what director can keep losing money and have studios hire him to waste more money? Villeneuve—who is now working on Dune: Part Two, because his vision of beauty is the only one available in Hollywood just now.

Nobody would believe me if I told them that Hollywood loves artistic vision more than profits, but here are a few more propositions that are as obviously true as implausible: Hollywood and critics, including feminists, love pro-life stories! Blade Runner 2049 is all about the miracle of birth; Arrival, which had a strong female lead, is also about a woman who chooses to give birth to her child even though she knows it will not live out its lifespan; even Dune is preparing to continue this theme of the miracle of birth.

Moreover, all three movies suggest that mankind’s future depends in some way (it’s not entirely clear why) on these births, so that they drive either the plot or the protagonist or define her characterization. I have no reason to believe Denis Villeneuve is a Christian, but his stories are obviously not only pro-life but pro-life on the basis of miracles. His movies are not only beautiful—they are beautiful because they are intended to awaken something of Christian belief without giving rise to any controversy. They combine earnestness and tenderness about this one issue while depicting an inhuman, techno-political future in every other respect, and the contrast makes it very easy to focus the emotions of the audience on this hope. In our very secular age, among our often openly atheistic elites, this is more than strange.

It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that these are stories about protagonists tempted to give up on life. You may call Villeneuve’s preferred aesthetic “magnificent desolation”—it certainly captures the pensive mood, the sadness and even heartbreak that render the protagonists often hard to distinguish from their environment. The imagery is often beautiful, sometimes awe-inspiring, while the protagonists are comparatively boring, occasionally annoying. Villeneuve took handsome actors like Amy Adams in Arrival and Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049 and stripped them of their charms. They only come alive when the miracle of life is vouchsafed them.

These are not stars but rather fragile beings, able to succeed only within very limited poetic situations. In a way, they are not as important as the revelation that unfolds in the story. They are, like so many in the audience, tempted by nihilism. They are supposed to lead the audience out of that temptation, if only a few steps in the right direction. To return to love of life, they themselves have to reinterpret their suffering as the test of faith, maybe as a preparation for something precious, which nevertheless is unloved, because the entire world is chasing after something else—perhaps power, control over the world or the future.

If the condition of a miracle is suffering, the experience of the terrible plight of human beings, the cause of the miracle is a secret. The science fiction genre can usher in both: Since nobody is confident about the future anymore, it’s easy to paint a hellish picture and have people recognize their own emotions in the landscape confronting them, a vision dominated by hopelessness and helplessness. And since the genre requires a mystery, or at least a puzzle, it lends itself to the idea that the most important things are secret—that although we may routinely act as though we know everything, we do not even know what’s inside our hearts.

Villeneuve’s achievement as a director is not so much a result of beautiful cinematography, haunting beauty, or Romanticism; instead, it lies in his tender treatment of the audience’s sentimentality, which used to be Spielberg’s power. This makes it possible for him to bring out the suffering in the hearts of the audience he’s addressing without making people look for revenge (since after all, someone’s got to be guilty of making us suffer) or collapse into despair (since it may be there’s nothing we can do about it). The beauty of the imagery connects suffering to redemption. The strength of the characters, which is primarily passive—it’s not physical strength but endurance that’s key—inspires the audience and prepares them to remember Christian hope.

The secret knowledge in these movies turns out to be intimately important to the protagonists, but not obviously of importance to anyone else, much less to the whole world. Only in the sense in which our souls expand to take in the whole world can we talk of secret knowledge, or of a poetic vision of the world, that’s supposed to encourage gentleness in audiences and a new respect for human suffering. Blade Runner 2049, for example, is about a replicant (Gosling), a synthetic human being, tasked with destroying others like him but whose detective-like search turns into a personal quest for the miracle of birth. If he can unravel the secrets of the plot, he thinks he can prove he is not merely a machine, or that replicants, too, are human, have souls. He enacts our fear that technology is not made out of love but robs us of our humanity rather than protecting it, never mind enhancing it. Whether knowledge can ever be connected to love, whether creation can ever be an act of love, is the question that gives the drama its seriousness.

Arrival is not set in such a hellish future, but the story aims to prevent a global catastrophic war. Aliens arrive and so the uniqueness of human beings is threatened. The aliens’ intentions are a secret, not least because we cannot communicate with them, and their power is immense but obscure, since they have not yet acted. That tension, that fear of something greater than us, leads the scientist protagonist (Adams) to try to understand their language, even if she cannot hope ever to overpower them. Vulnerability and mortality thus become key to mankind’s survival, not war.

Dune, finally, offers us a protagonist who begins in a lofty position, an heir to an aristocratic family who loses his father and all the power and prestige of the royal house, along with all their loyal servants. Now he must discover a free people animated not by honor but by messianic faith, which turns out to be an even better basis for a war in defense of justice. The neediest, most despised people turn out to be more enduring and more reliable than the loftiest and most privileged.

These movies don’t have traditional happy endings; the end is a form of justice—these characters can be content with themselves because they have become part of a greater faith. They have made a contribution to something of perhaps cosmic importance but are themselves unimportant. They are now witnesses, not heroes.

I’ll conclude with something that may also seem preposterous: Villeneuve was born in 1967, just between the Boomers and Gen-X, and he seems to sympathize with both generations. He turns to the midcentury for the confidence we excusably call epic, but he turns to Gen-X for the dark mood, the existential lack of ambition. He has found his ideal in the ’80s, which have not been considered a source of inspiring humanity or beauty up to now, given the garish and flamboyant fashions of that time and the tendency of its artists to prophesy the apocalypse and blame it on Reagan or Thatcher.

Villeneuve is not alone in ’80s nostalgia, but he’s the only one who tries to show that, properly guided, it’s about an innocent love of beauty that tames suffering and restores hope. David Lynch’s Dune and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner are both 1980s movies, of course, but put together, as both cynical and earnest, they provide a conflict necessary to art. Thus, conservative pessimism and liberal Progress can be dramatized, as well as conservative hope and liberal despair of the past. Villeneuve’s success shows that audiences want to follow him, but he hasn’t yet quite found the path. He has gone very far encouraging a pro-life attitude, an openness to faith and even conservatism, but he’s more beautiful than credible to audiences so far. He is not yet a decade into his turn to science fiction, and he obviously wants to give us a humane vision of the future, as few directors even try. I’m looking forward to Dune: Part Two, the first time faith itself will become the theme of his movies.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.