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Spice girl
Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction series of novels have defied truly satisfying screen adaptations for being too dense to easily adapt. That is until director Denis Villeneuve rolled up his sleeves. Camus is in no small awe at his astonishing DUNE
 
  '“I’m a hard-core fan of Dune. I read the book 40 years ago. I read it several times, and it’s stayed with me through the years,” said the 54-year-old Villeneuve, who added that in making the film “I focused on one person in the audience, which is me. So the biggest challenge was to satisfy the teenager that I was.”'
  Director Denis Villeneuve*

 

To be blunt, Hollywood is in the business of satisfying teenagers but I think Villeneuve was a being a little more specific. Dune is a monumental work by a director who understands and can interpret the complex cinematic relationship between the intimate, the all-important detail and the vast political backdrop against which the serpentine narrative plays out. He uses big close ups to unlock the thoughts of the characters and huge, stunning wide shots to indicate the scale of what’s at stake. The ambition of the film – and the realisation of that ambition – is quite astonishing. I was a little nervous about watching an interpretation of a book series I know so well. After all, to be surprised by the narrative is a very big reason why I watch films and as far as spoilers go, I knew almost all the narrative beats, who lives, who dies etc. so the spectacle and the breadth of vision would have to carry me along. I needn’t have worried. I have seen the 1984 David Lynch effort many times, a work somewhat hampered by the limitations of the effects technology of the 80s (if seeking it out, please do not watch ‘the long version’ as it’s directed by Alan Smithee – the fictitious chap who’s always credited when the original director wants his name off the film – and that should tell you everything), and the TV versions were also impeded by lack of production resources. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version (designed by Alien’s then soon-to-be resident genius, Hans Rudi Giger) was set to be the benchmark were it not for nervous investors and beautifully insane directors. The storyboards of his riotously imaginative version still impress. See the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. Had he made his Dune at the time, cinema may not have taken the simplistic Star Wars turn it did in the late 70s. That’s not a criticism of Lucas’ original but a healthy cinematic diet can have only so much popcorn before you hunger for real sustenance.

Dune’s narrative is not easy to condense into a potted synopsis (hence the problem with its adaptation) but here goes. It is the far flung future. Interstellar space travel is made possible by the ‘spice melange’, a psychotropic substance that exists on only one planet (can you guess which one?) It can elongate life and mutates human beings into interstellar navigators who can then fold space and deliver ships to far off destinations. The family of the House of Harkonnen have been overseeing the spice harvesting on Arrakis (aka Dune) for eighty years. (There’s a subtle re-pronunciation from the 1984 ‘Har-COE-nun’ to today’s ‘Hark-uh-nun’.) They have ruled the planet with barbaric brutality including the merciless treatment of the indigenous people of the planet, the Fremen. These desert people survive the harshest conditions by being clad in ingenious suits of their own invention, ‘stillsuits’, that filter their bodies’ water and recycle it for consumption. Also on the planet are the enormous sand worms that are attracted to rhythmic sounds and vibrations, precisely those caused by the mechanical spice harvesters. The Emperor of the Known Universe (unseen so far in this version) is somewhat intimidated by a certain Duke Leo Atreides who resides with his family and loyal military commanders on the lush, watery Earth-like planet of Caladan. The Emperor decides to hand over the governorship of Arrakis to the Duke’s family in order to pit the two great Houses against each other and continue in power while war is waged between the Harkonnens and Atreides, thereby weakening both. But the Emperor has reckoned without the Duke’s son, Paul, whose vivid and powerful dreams and visions of the Fremen (one girl in particular) have started him on a destiny that he may or may not fulfil. Making things all the more intriguing is a sect of powerful women, the Bene Gesserit, of which Paul’s mother is one, that has infiltrated all houses of the warring factions and are advisors to the powerful. They each possess ‘the weirding way’, a mind control that steers weaker minds to do their bidding (does that sound familiar to anyone?) “You don’t need to see his papers…” is your only clue.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides

What Dune does so successfully is present its worlds in a technically immaculate fashion and the accumulation of detail in vast interior and exterior spaces is almost overwhelming. Yet it all maintains an analogue reality. There’s not a computer monitor in sight, no flashing lights and like Blade Runner 2049, these are worlds without Steve Jobs and as I have an Apple logo on every piece of kit I’ve owned and used since 1985, you could say I’m a fan. But that digital clarity and 2021-ness doesn’t belong on Arrakis, Caladan nor Giedi Prime. And Villeneuve’s vision was strong enough to keep them out. The images and ideas are presented with real care and authenticity and Villeneuve has a profound trust in the novel’s power. He is empowering memories and visions of his own younger imagination and merging them with the glorious power of a fifty-plus year-old’s life experiences. Add to that a large but not Marvel-size Hollywood budget and what wonders this enables given the right crew and the right director. The effects work is absolutely faultless (fellow director Christopher Nolan said that Dune “has one of the greatest blends of practical and VFX I’ve ever seen,” but if it was that good, how could he tell?!) and it’s at times like this that I re-mourn the loss of the truly awe inspiring journal of special effects, Cinefex. Yes, a great deal of computer generated imagery has been employed but you know what? I couldn’t tell what was real and what was creatively arranged pixels unless I knew what I was watching was practically impossible and even then I was so immersed, it didn’t matter. This is exactly how it should be. Bravo to both Villeneuve’s SFX team (real in-camera effects) and VFX team (post production CGI work) under the stewardship of Paul Lambert.

But truly the emotional power of the film is not in its effects, grandeur or beauty or the disgust at the behaviour of the Harkonnens. Yes, they all help enormously but it is in the performances and I have to take the time to appreciate them. Boiled down to its essence, Dune is decent people trying to be decent in the face of murderous savagery. For the former, life is hard, the latter, somewhat more simplistic. For a young actor whose hair, I imagine, has its own agent, I thought Timothée Chalomet may have been too light to take on the role of a would-be Messiah. But he’s just perfect as Paul Atreides. As much as I appreciated Lynch’s avatar played by Kyle MacLachlan, he was too much a character from 1980’s Earth than a potential leader of a warrior race of a distant planet. I would hate to say that it was the hair (given Chalomet’s own celebrated locks) but some of it was. He was just too much of his time despite him being the same age as Chalomet when he played Paul. Chalomet’s performance is afforded more nuance and therefore is more convincing as a potential saviour despite his less than imposing physicality. His expressive countenance gives Paul the weight of imposed spirituality that usually strains a hard science fiction tale to the limits of acceptance. But not via Chalomet. From dream and vision number one, we are with him all the way. Paul is considerably aided by Rebecca Ferguson as his mother Lady Jessica. She has bequeathed to him the ‘weirding way’, the power to control minds with a voice pitched to make Dolby speakers wince. Ferguson has been around Hollywood’s big hitters for a number of years. She has a practical beauty (DNA lottery winners fit well in Hollywood) and acting talent that marks her out from the crowd. From a personal perspective, it’s a coincidence that the 1984’s Dune’s Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis) was also a powerfully beautiful woman who became more attractive the more that beauty was downgraded as she adapted to the Fremen’s desert life. It’s the same with Ferguson. The worse the conditions, the more human she becomes. She gives her own son a look at the end of the film that indicates that she may have given birth to a power that even she cannot understand and may be fearful of. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (as long as Part Two sees the light of day in a few years). It seems that Part Two, at the time of writing, has been greenlit. Result. I find myself thinking that I cannot wait for the conclusion of the story, Villeneuve-style, despite knowing it backwards already.                   

The rest of the cast is a dream team. It’s a who’s who of current thespianic talent and no one feels shoehorned in for their name. This is razor sharp casting with each actor perfectly suited to their character. With the exception of Paul and Lady Jessica, Dune is mostly an ensemble piece. Stealing his scenes with that twinkle in his eye is Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho. Duncan goes on ahead of the family to make first contact with the Fremen. Momoa’s powerful physicality sets him apart (he’s DC’s Aquaman if you’ve just landed on the planet) but the character’s good heart and humour soon make him the guy you want to spend more time with. Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides cuts a dashing figure and holds his office with due gravitas. On a silly personal note, Isaacs always seems to be a record setter at facial hair growth. I bet it took him all of an afternoon to grow that fine beard. Playing his nemesis is Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. A morbidly obese glutton with real sadism in his bones is a tough character to sell. And he floats with the aid of anti-gravity technology. I can’t imagine any actor having fun in the prosthetics he had to endure (seven hours just to apply it, the poor man) or that disgusting oil bath glimpsed in the trailer but he does the one thing that’s needed. He makes a wonderfully convincing monster. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an unconvincing performance from Skarsgård and he’s in both Mamma Mias…

The spectacle of Dune

Rounding out the cast are; Josh Brolin well away from his Thanos duties as weapons master Gurney Halleck with humour drier than the desert planet he’s stationed on; Javier Bardem as Stilgar the leader of the Fremen who initiates a peace accord with the Duke which features a startling but beautiful cultural misunderstanding; Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet Kynes is a sympathetic Fremen soul removed from the politics and still yet trying to help Paul and his mother; Dave Bautista is ‘The Beast’ Rabban Harkonnen and to be honest, who else could Villeneuve cast for this role? Then there’s that striking looking actor so memorable from playing an acolyte of the Joker in The Dark Knight, David Dastmalchian as Piter de Vries. The youngest of the females is Zendaya as Paul’s dream/prophecy girl, Chani. I know marketing school probably teaches us that having a single name is cooler than two but I’m always unjustifiably suspicious about actors who go by one name. There’s nothing wrong with Zendaya Coleman, is there? But ZC is also perfectly cast for her beauty and otherness. Finally there are two 60s icons featured in Dune. Under a net veil you’ll find Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother Mohiam. Her authority and bearing seem completely natural and she’s rather handy with ‘the voice’. Ask the human spider. The other 60s icon is Marianne Faithful who turns in a voice performance as one of the Bene Gesserit Ancestors. How quietly cool is that?

Inevitably there are sound design similarities with Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Despite the idea in post of a documentary aspect to the sound, 21st century film soundtracks are extraordinarily complex things and for whatever reason – familiarity with the dialogue? – there are always lines of dialogue missed on a first time viewing. I could never be sure if I was listening to sound design or Hans Zimmer’s score for a lot of the running time. Zimmer threw out the orchestra for Dune and brought in a whole manner of unusual instruments to create his sound scape for the desert. The phrase ‘wall of sound’ is usually used pejoratively and in a lot of modern cinema, scores seem to be just that but in this case it’s artistically justified. Dune is after all an experience to have not just a film to watch. As is my custom, I played the score on repeat for a day and found it to be not exactly easy on the ears. But a score serves the film and Zimmer’s ambition is edging open a door of experimentation that must be a good thing for the industry. The music reminded me more of the late Alan Splet’s sound work on, ironically, early David Lynch projects (but not Dune 1984). And there were significant moments when the sound in Dune dropped to almost nothing, so refreshing in a big film, one that usually demands every inch of air to be filled with something.

Of its kind, Dune is a masterpiece but it’s only part one. Joss Whedon has often been quoted that The Empire Strikes Back cannot be better than Star Wars because it’s an ‘episode’ and therefore has no satisfying and conclusive ending. While I get his point, I’m just pretending for a moment that Dune has been subjected to an intermission. We are used to ten minutes but we can wait two years, can’t we?

postscript

I am one of those purists who cannot bear the cheapening of the original 70mm film IMAX brand by blowing up conventionally shot movies, saying they are projected in IMAX when they practically could never be. But to further the company’s penetration into standard cinemas, they do boast that IMAX Digital (or ‘IMAX lite’ or ‘Lie-Max’ as some wags have termed the rebranding) means presentations of movies on a bigger screen with better picture quality and better sound than standard cinemas. While Christopher Nolan shot significant parts of his later films with IMAX film cameras which when projected change the aspect ratio from a widescreen format to a more square IMAX image. But the difference between the original film format and IMAX digital is immense… 12K vs. 2.9K in resolution. I saw Dune at a standard cinema but it was still jaw dropping. I’m curious how the IMAX Digital sections would pop off the screen but was unable to find an IMAX Digital presentation for this review.

 


* https://preview.houstonchronicle.com/movies-tv/interview-dune-director-denis-villeneuve-16542883
Dune poster
Dune

USA | Canada | Hungary | Norway | India 2021
155 mins
directed by
Denis Villeneuve
produced by
Cale Boyter
Joe Caracciolo Jr.
written by
Jon Spaihts
Denis Villeneuve
Eric Roth
from the novel by
Frank Herbert
cinematography
Greig Fraser
editing
Joe Walker
music
Hans Zimmer
production design
Patrice Vermette
starring
Timothée Chalamet
Rebecca Ferguson
Oscar Isaac
Jason Momoa
Stellan Skarsgård
Stephen McKinley Henderson
Josh Brolin
Javier Bardem
Sharon Duncan-Brewster
Chang Chen
Dave Bautista
David Dastmalchian

UK distributor
Warner Bros Entertainment UK Ltd.
UK release date
21 October 2021
review posted
28 October 2021

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