Sunday, October 24, 2021

"Dune, Part 1": review

Shai-Hulud arises from the sand.
Denis Villeneuve is the guy you go to when you want a movie that's slow, thoughtful, punctuated with a bit of violence here and there, and brimming with Big Ideas. I think the French Canadian is an extremely talented director, and I've enjoyed his "Siciario," "Arrival," and "Blade Runner 2049." Villeneuve doesn't fall into the George Lucas trap of not pushing his actors, and when he engages in a project, he normally has a clear, well-thought-out, coherent vision. According to Villeneuve's own testimony in various interviews, "Dune" has long been a dream project for him, and he's finally had his chance to shine. I'll save you the suspense: "Dune" shines for sure.

Thanks to the pandemic, there was some question as to whether "Dune" would be released directly and exclusively to home video. Villeneuve was famously peeved by the idea, and he fought hard to make sure the movie would secure a theatrical release. His anger is understandable: "Dune" is a spectacle that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

For those two or three of you who have no idea what "Dune" is about, the movie is based on the novel Dune by Frank Herbert. In the 1960s, Dune won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It is a story that takes place some ten thousand years in the future. Mankind has tried and failed to create and use AI, and the aftermath of the human/AI war resulted in the commandment, "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind." In this far future, mankind has reverted to an imperial state, with Emperor Shaddam IV at the head of the Galactic Padishah Empire. Under the emperor are the great houses of the Landsraad, and prominent among them are two enemy houses, Atreides (the good guys) and Harkonnen (the bad guys). Frank Herbert's Dune ended up being the first in a series of novels; Dune itself focuses on the story of young Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and the Lady Jessica. Jessica is a member of the all-female order of the Bene Gesserit, which trains its members in biofeedback, various forms of combat, and perhaps most importantly, politics. The Bene Gesserit have been working behind the scenes for centuries, steering humanity's course along what is called "the golden path." Lady Jessica had been commanded by her order to give birth to a daughter, but instead, she gave birth to Paul, whom she has been training in the Bene Gesserit way. The planet Arrakis, colloquially called Dune, has been under the cruel control of the Harkonnens for decades, but the emperor has suddenly seen fit to dismiss the Harkonnens to have Dune ruled over by the Atreides. Thus do Leto, Jessica, and Paul uproot themselves from their comfortable life on the planet Caladan—with its verdure and bountiful water—to move to the sere, austere desert planet Arrakis, home and sole source of a substance called the spice, a psychotropic chemical that allows powerful minds to navigate folded space-time, thereby facilitating interstellar space travel. No spice, no space travel. No space travel, no empire. This makes Arrakis centrally important to the galaxy.

Villeneuve's "Dune" plunks us into the middle of this situation, with Paul as a teenager being groomed to take over his father's role as duke. The Harkonnens are just now leaving; the Atreides are just now arriving to take their place on Arrakis, and the local tribes of fierce Fremen have every reason to believe the Atreides will be just as cruel and exploitative as the Harkonnens had been. Duke Leto, a kind ruler, wants to harness what he sees as the "desert power" inherent in the might of the secretive Fremen. He wishes not to exploit them but to make an alliance with them. But there are other forces at work: the Bene Gesserit arrived on Arrakis long ago, and in preparation for the future, implanted a myth among the Fremen of a coming messiah, a Lisan al-Gaib. Meanwhile, the emperor and the Harkonnens have come to a secret agreement, and the Atreides presence on Arrakis is a trap. But Duke Leto, though kind, is not stupid, and he knows full well that other forces in the empire are moving against him and his family line.

The basic elements of the plot described above are in both the novel and the movie. The movie skips over or changes certain details: in the movie, for example, the Judge of the Change, a man named Liet Kynes, has been made into a female. Like in the book, the movie version of Kynes has been imperially commanded to be neutral about the government changeover on Arrakis, but she secretly sides with the Atreides family once she discovers firsthand that the new rulers really do care about the people. Her shift in loyalties will have dire consequences for her. In the book, Kynes is the father of Chani, the Fremen girl who will eventually become Paul Atreides's love interest. That wrinkle is absent in the movie version, but I don't think this absence does much to affect the overall plot.

"Dune" has elements in common with more recent works like "A Game of Thrones" in terms of all the plotting, betrayals, and castle intrigue. As in the novel, Paul is looked upon by the Fremen as a messiah, but "Dune, Part 1" goes only as far as to hint at visions of what might happen should Paul take on the mantle of the Muad'Dib (this universe's version of the Muslim mahdi, a type of messiah) or Kwisatz Haderach (lit., "shortening of the way," a being who sees and perhaps even unites possible futures). Villeneuve's movie does a good job of giving us a sense of Paul's call to destiny; prophetic dreams are with Paul from the beginning.

The actors all step up to the task of playing the story's iconic roles well. Oscar Isaac is appropriately dignified and soulful as Duke Leto Atreides; Rebecca Ferguson is a combination of deadly, maternal, and vulnerable in the role of Paul's mother Jessica, the concubine who can never marry Duke Leto. Timothée Chalamet is capable in the role of young, troubled Paul, who comes off as competent but overwhelmed by what is being asked of him, whether it's to succeed his father as head of House Atreides or to lead a jihadi army on a bloody conquest of the galaxy. Josh Brolin, fresh off his turn as Thanos in a series of Marvel movies, does fine work as gruff Gurney Halleck, one of Paul's personal teachers and a leader of warriors. Jason Momoa turns in a nuanced performance as Duncan Idaho, another weapons master and warrior in whom Paul confides his dreams. For the Harkonnen side, Stellan Skarsgård commands the screen as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. David Dastmalchian as personal Mentat Piter De Vries gets the creepy vibe just right, and Dave Bautista as Glossu "Beast" Rabban is properly menacing. Among the Fremen, Javier Bardem makes for a solid Stilgar, but Zendaya (as Chani), whom you see so much of in the preview trailers, actually has little to do in the movie aside from serve as the object of many of Paul's visions. She gets some actual dialogue toward the end, but I think she'll have a much-expanded role in the follow-up film, assuming there is one (you may have heard that the making of "Dune, Part 2" is very much in doubt).

We can't talk about Villeneuve's "Dune" without roping in David Lynch's 1984 mega-disaster version of this story. Lynch's "Dune" has many haters, and I can see why. Lynch is an auteur, a maker of arthouse flicks, and I still don't understand why he was chosen to helm a classic like this. The results of Lynch's efforts weren't up to his usual standards. That said, there are elements of Lynch's "Dune" that I admit I rather enjoy—his choice of cast, for example. Patrick Stewart was a fine Gurney Halleck, and Kyle MacLachlan was a capable Paul Atreides, if a tad too old. I also had a bit of a crush on Francesca Annis, who rather sexily played Lady Jessica. Max Von Sydow was great as a book-faithful Liet Kynes, Siân Phillips was iconic as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, Jose Ferrer played Emperor Shaddam IV with gravitas, and Kenneth McMillan was gleefully over the top as Baron Harkonnen. Lynch worked with a top-notch cast, but some of the film's Shatnerian line deliveries have led me to wonder what he was smoking when he was directing his actors. Lynch's choice to do voice-overs of characters' inner monologues may also have been a bit too literal of an attempt at adapting the novel to the screen. (In the novel, we are often privy to characters' thoughts.) Villeneuve's "Dune" gives us spooky voices on occasion as a way of hinting at prophecy, but never as a way of conveying a character's specific thoughts.

Another area where Villeneuve's "Dune" kicks the ass of Lynch's version is that of special effects. Lynch really has no excuse for the sloppy production values of his 1984 film. "Return of the Jedi" had come out the previous year, featuring the cutting edge of Hollywood special effects for the time. Lynch's "Dune" looked bargain basement in comparison, at least with any scene involving a blue screen and ships. Why Lynch didn't take advantage of the full potential of special effects back then is probably a story involving budgetary constraints and producer/studio infighting. Frankly, I don't want to know that story; all I care about is the disappointing result. Villeneuve, on the other hand, took full advantage of the awesome technology at his disposal and crafted a film with nearly flawless effects, ranging from understated (like Baron Harkonnen's repulsorlifts) to grandiose (like the Heighliners and the transports of House Atreides).

Which leads us to the sandworms. In the novel Dune, sandworms dominate the storyline. For the movie versions, the sandworms needed to be big and bad and bold. Lynch didn't do a terrible job with his version of these behemoths, which cruise the deserts of Arrakis like massive whales with huge fangs. But Villeneuve takes the sandworms in an interesting direction, making their teeth look almost baleen-like, less for biting things than for funneling food into those massive mouths. Villeneuve's "Dune" offers us several tantalizing hints of what a sandworm looks like before finally giving us a huge, theophanic reveal toward the end of the film. I have chosen the word "theophanic" carefully because, in the culture of the Fremen, Shai-Hulud (the sandworm) is considered a manifestation of God. Villeneuve's magnificent sandworms, seen in contrast with tiny humans, do indeed strike awe in the viewer, or at least in me. They are an organic marvel, convincingly integral to the ecology of Arrakis, and awesome on the big screen.

I should also note the film's sound design, from the music to the auditory effects. Composer/conductor Hans Zimmer, as it turns out, has also long been a fan of Dune, and it was a dream of his to work on "Dune" as a project. The planets seem to have aligned, then, in getting Zimmer together in the same room with Villeneuve (Zimmer is German for "room," by the way). Zimmer has been prone to excess in the past; I always go back to his breathless score for "The Rock," which has not stood the test of time, and I don't like his work on "Gladiator." But as he's aged and mellowed, his music has become more serious. I've enjoyed his more thoughtful work in films like "The Dark Knight," "Interstellar," and "Inception." You can hear traces of those films in his score for "Dune," and Zimmer has added some ethereal, spooky touches to this soundtrack that often called to mind the work of Bear McCreary on "Battlestar Galactica." One video I saw said that Zimmer had to invent new instruments for this movie to get the otherworldly sound he desired. As for the film's larger sound design, you can tell that Villeneuve has taken great care here, too, to provide the audience with a dimensional experience (Theo Green is credited as sound editor).

So in sum, "Dune" is the story of a young man burdened by prophecy and destiny, struggling to survive on an alien world as he comes to grips with powers that, at first, seem much greater than he is. By the end of Villeneuve's "Dune," though, Paul has begun to gain the trust and respect of the desert Fremen, and assuming "Part 2" is eventually made, we will witness how this massive story concludes. 

It's been said many times that the novel Dune is, among other things, a warning about messiahs. It could be a warning that messiahs aren't always who they're portrayed to be, as with the proverb "Never meet your heroes," which is about how the real falls short of the ideal. It could also be that messiahs are inherently misleading, causing one to think that the arrival of a messiah signals some sort of end (or beginning), when in fact, history shows us that the story never ends, and anyone claiming to be a messiah turns out to be nothing more than one wave in a ceaselessly moving ocean.

Denis Villeneuve is to be credited with doing his best at treating the source material with greater respect than David Lynch did (although some of Lynch's imagery will forever remain burned into my consciousness). Villeneuve's "Dune" isn't perfect, e.g., Dr. Kynes's fate isn't faithful to the book at all, but it's better than a mere college try. 2021's "Dune" is the film David Lynch could have made had he taken the story more seriously. Villeneuve, like Lynch, assembled a very competent and photogenic cast, and the result is a visually sumptuous epic that warrants multiple viewings just so one can drink in all the details. I have high hopes that the film will do well enough to warrant greenlighting "Part 2." Hats off to the director and the cast for giving us such a fun ride. "Dune" is a feast for the eyes and ears and mind, and if you're looking for a reason to see a movie in a theater instead of watching it, pandemic-trapped, at home, then your opportunity has finally come.

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