Jan 19, 2020
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Three Movie Stars Head for Dubai but End Up in the Uncanny Valley

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A title card reads ‘‘Dubai Presents,’’ as if the city were a movie studio. We hear Kate Hudson’s voice: ‘‘I think we should all go out!’’ She appears on a boat with Gwyneth Paltrow under a cloudy sky. It’s an absurd thing to say, and it cracks them both up. Because of course they’re going out later. What else would they do? Stay in? They’re in Dubai!

It looks to be early in the morning, and the two A-listers (and real-life friends) are acting pretty batty. Did they get enough sleep? Are they still drunk? Something about it feels off, and then the next thing you know, Paltrow is standing up in the boat, arms raised above her head in a victorious V, bellowing, ‘‘Ahhhhhh!’’ at the top of her lungs.

Anyone who has ever watched a horror film will find their muscles tensing. We are trained to brace ourselves during scenes like these: scenes of attractive women having too much uninhibited, unsupervised fun. Thrillers, too, have trained us to regard certain locales as settings for danger and adrenalized excitement. (In ‘‘Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,’’ Tom Cruise death-defyingly scales Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the world’s tallest building.) But this is not that kind of movie — in fact, it’s not a movie at all, but a national tourism board commercial for a destination that’s already the world’s fourth-most-visited city, according to Mastercard, after Bangkok, Paris and London.

Under the custodianship of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai has methodically transformed itself into a kind of resort state — a platonic global citizen’s platonic ideal of a good time. It appears to be designed to cater to the traveler who wants frictionless, engineered fun; the illusion of elsewhere without the alienation; the illusion of culture without the tedium — for instance, on now, through Feb. 1, a shopping festival. In Dubai, you can ski with penguins. You can visit the Dubai Mall, one of the largest in the world. You can see Lego camels at Legoland. There’s an island shaped like a palm tree.

The film that guides us through this wonderland is titled ‘‘A Story Takes Flight,’’ though no such thing happens, in any real narrative sense. Gwyneth and Kate are on a girls’ trip with a third friend, Zoe Saldana (of ‘‘Avatar’’ fame), who has run off with Bedouins — for the weekend, or something. Moodily stalking the dunes, she meets a falconer, who invites her to hold his falcon and demonstrates how he can track it with his smartphone. Afterward, she hops on her motorcycle and hits the road. When she runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere, she is rescued by two men who take her shoe shopping. ‘‘It’s all about the shoes,’’ one says, as the three of them gaze at a pair of gold sandals through a shop window. ‘‘They’re stunning.’’ Saldana looks down at her scruffy boots and purses her lips in serious contemplation.

Hudson, meanwhile, is sitting at an outdoor cafe when she strikes up a conversation with a gray-bearded, man-bunned expat cradling a bass case. She asks where she might buy some local art to take home. He tells her, and she introduces herself, as you wouldn’t — especially if you were the world-famous movie-star daughter of a world-famous movie star. While this is going on, Paltrow is wandering the souk, where she spots a girl in a hijab riding a skateboard. She snaps her picture without asking for her permission. The girl is cool with it, because she’s into cameras, too.

The forced feeling of these vignettes mirrors Dubai’s own. Dubai is an accelerated city, a master-planned destination on a mass scale. It did not become a place people liked to go to so much as it was engineered to be one, a hyperreal version of itself offering a consumable simulacrum of local culture interwoven with placeless, high-end luxury activities. The video takes pains to present visiting Dubai as a distinctly local and specifically — if superficially — Arab cultural experience. It also nudges its placeless postmodernity toward an earthier kind of global cosmopolitanism: less skiing with penguins in malls and more chance meetings with handsome motorcyclists and bohemian musician types.

The choice of three female global movie stars — not to mention the director, Reed Morano, who is best known for her work on ‘‘The Handmaid’s Tale’’ — for this particular rebranding is a dissonant one. ‘‘A Story Takes Flight’’ posits Dubai as a modern city where women can do whatever they want; where fun and freedom and pleasure are their imperative. But in the United Arab Emirates, where women are still legally obligated to obey their husbands, the law imposes some constraints on the girls’-trip narrative. In Dubai, photographing women without their permission, as Paltrow does, could get you into legal trouble. So can swearing; drinking or kissing in public; having gay sex; cross-dressing; possessing pornography; or sharing a hotel room with a member of the opposite sex to whom you’re not married.

This may explain why ‘‘A Story Takes Flight’’ never manages to quite become a story: Its producers have signed the checks for the necessary Hollywood talent, but all the normal Hollywood flight paths are blocked. Its pretensions are thwarted at every turn. Hudson meets a musician at a cafe and then . . . goes to see him play at another cafe. Saldana meets some mysterious bikers in the desert and then . . . goes shoe shopping with them. Paltrow meets a cool and interesting young person with her finger on the pulse of Dubai’s vibrant culture and then . . . they don’t really do anything. Aside from some hints at potential hot encounters with strangers, the usual romantic tropes you tend to encounter in this sort of thing are conspicuously absent.

Stories — like travel, or life — are not frictionless experiences, as everyone involved in this production knows. You can’t have a story without peril or change, which this film assiduously avoids. Paltrow, Hudson and Saldana are not really characters here but avatars, navigating the kinds of experi­ences sought by a certain kind of American visitor (which Dubai, whose tourist traffic is only 6 percent American, is no doubt eager to attract). They have been designed and optimized to cater to the desire to be a traveler rather than a tourist, but without risk; to be at once familiar and novel, adventurous but safe, free but also free of consequence. With this video, Dubai turns itself into an unassailable idea, just like America, split off from reality. It tells us we’ll feel right at home.

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