Tuesday, November 30, 2021

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    Dune movie review: Denis Villeneuve sets new benchmark for big-budget sci-fi

    A still from Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Image from youtube.

    A still from Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Image from youtube.

    Doon: Part One | Director: Denis Villeneuve

    Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaacs, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, David Dustmalchian, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem

    Duration: 2 hours 35 minutes | Language: English | Rating: 4.5

    For a long time, the question of adapting Dune to the screen was like opening a can of worms. He was what he was and what could have been. David Lynch took Frank Herbert’s mythical vision of a universe full of new worlds, traditions, and languages ​​— and beat them to a pulp of more than two hours. The first was spent in the exhibition, the second in the speedy resolution. All the great fat liposuction that made the book so rewarding was done. With it, went political intrigue, and the making/unmaking of a messiah. Alejandro Jodorowski knew that the novel could not be summed up like this. So, he dreamed up a 14-hour feature, and assembled what seemed like a dream cast, which included Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dalí. Pink Floyd was brought in to do the music. HR Giger, Jean ‘Moebius’ Giroud, and Chris Foss were slated to design the production, with Alien’s Dan O’Bannon in charge of special effects. However, rising costs put the project on hold in the pre-production stage forever. It was all briefly mapped into Doctor, Jodorowsky’s Dune. The cult filmmaker could never use himself in The Inkle and Metabarans comics series, leaving the sci-fi fan forever wondering: What could have happened?

    On these grounds, claims of Dune’s undistinguishing continued to mount. If Denis Villeneuve can adapt Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” into monumental sci-fi ops Arrival, there really should have been little doubt whether he could replicate it with Herbert’s novel. The first installment in a planned two-part program, Dune is a surprising reworking of some dense prose into cinematic idiom—if not quite the bold reinvention Jodorowsky has served. In a Hollywood landscape that has become creatively barren, the wait for Villeneuve’s Dune has been so long that it felt like a mirage from afar. And when the wait is that long, the anticipation builds up to the point where there isn’t enough. But Dune is more than enough. It is a richly realized work of science-fiction goodness, setting a new standard for event cinema.

    Sand dunes wave like waves in the sea. Spaceships hover like floating skyscrapers. The winged plane flaps like a dragonfly. Tooth sphincters, over 1000 feet long, roar underground like deadly engines, consuming everything that comes their way. Every detail enriches the Dune experience. Each frame sends our imaginations into hyperdrive. Blockbuster-sized science-fiction has been heading towards the event horizon for some time. Superheroes and nostalgic reboots have changed ideas, the spark that fuels the genre.

    Dune gives us a reason to celebrate for once, instead of condemning the art of Hollywood blockbusters.

    The screenplay, which Villeneuve co-wrote with Eric Roth and Jon Spahts, covers only the first half of the novel. Warner Bros. is waiting to see how Part 1 performs at the box office before they flag off Part 2. Do it already. Do it before we have another “Release the Snyder Cut” situation on our hands.

    Herbert’s Dune series became an essential prerequisite of the science-fiction epic, influencing pop culture phenomena such as Star Wars and anime classics such as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. The grand saga is a combination of political deceit, dynastic conflict, ecological crisis, spiritual awakening, chosen people and big-ass insects. The miracle is that Villeneuve’s film doesn’t crumble under the weight of so much plot and worldbuilding. It transcends the textual boundaries of a novel heavy on detail and mythology with visual language, taking us into whole new worlds and the future. In bridging nomos and cosmos, Dune creates a lush and welcoming canopy.

    To orient the Bachelor in an unfamiliar universe, Villeneuve opens the film with voice-over narration, only to set context, much in the same way that the text of Star Wars crawls. Not one to hold hands, he is cautious about feeding too much information. Instead, it is manipulated at a rate where the viewer knows more than enough to understand what is happening. There’s a de-emphasis on over-explaining, and letting the images tell the story. In doing so, it transforms us from passive to active observers, forcing us to infer from the non-verbal gestures of actors what they would not express in words. That sweet spot between emotion and meaning, between plugged in and a little lost, is essential to the pleasures of sci-fi. Rest assured, the viewer is unlikely to be sucked into the whims of the narrative.

    On the desert planet of Arrakis is the universe’s most valuable resource: the “spice” that powers interstellar travel, and provides clairvoyance and long life-spans. The elite houses of a feudal kingdom from different planets battle for control over their mining rights. When the Emperor grants them to Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) over Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgrd), the latter is not very pleased. What soon becomes clear that this was not a promotion for one and a demotion for the other, but a ploy to play them against each other. Not to make things even easier for the Atreides upon arrival at Arrakis, there are a native tribe of stone nomads called freemen, and giant sandworms whose lifecycle holds the secret to spice production.

    Still from Doon.  Image from youtube.

    Still from Doon. Image from youtube.

    Plotted in the shadows is a cloak and dagger plan to create a white messiah. At its center is Paul (Timothie Chalamet), a descendant of House Atreides. Chalamet proves to be right for the young protagonist, who initially appears a little too soft for an alleged savior before rising into the role. Grizzled weapons master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) is in charge of training Paul. Charged with protecting Paul is the charming swordsman Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), who is a big brother to him and the kind of warrior he wants to be.

    The ousted son of an aristocratic family comes to a foreign land to lead their indigenous tribes in rebellion against their oppressors. In the novels it has been called butlerian jihad. But the film calls it a “holy war,” a mournful attempt to whitewash and Christianize Dune’s openly Islamic motifs. Replace spice with oil, and Arrakis from Iraq, Herbert’s critique of the Western Neocon dream becomes painfully clear. A dream that plundered the wealth hidden under the dunes in the Middle East, while destabilizing the region forever. At one point in the film, the Baron literally takes a bath in sticky crude oil.

    Over the course of six novels, Herbert demystified the ideas of white saviors and messianic religions. He was particularly distrustful of messiahs, whom he saw as a poisonous force by design. The entire galaxy cannot be manipulated without access to some insidious lever on its population. That’s where Bene Gesserit comes in. The mighty brotherhood plants myths of the coming of a Messiah, manipulating bloodlines and events to maintain their supremacy. A prominent member of the Bene Gesserit is Paul’s own mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). The film chronicles the relationship between the two, as she teaches Paul how to channel his voice (similar to Jedi mind tricks). She also proves to be a tremendous force in the “strange way,” the Bene Gesserit martial arts. In addition to expanding the role of Lady Jessica, Villeneuve will play the gender-flipped Dr. Lit Kines (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), planetary scientist who plays a peacemaker on Arrakis when things heat up between House Atrides, House Harkonnen, and the Empire. In Paul’s vision, he sees Chani (Zendaya), a freeman warrior and skilled survivor who doesn’t have much to do in Part 1. He is in addition to star in Cologne commercials. At least, every time Zendaya appears, her hair blows in the wind, and her piercing blue eyes stare at us, that’s what it looks like. Overexposure gives these visions a shimmering effect, blurring out key details of what’s to come.

    Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Dune.  Image from youtube.

    Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Dune. Image from youtube.

    Atreides travels from their sea-home Caladon to the arid planet of Arrakis, both worlds built in crisply crafted tableaux. Cinematographer Greg Fraser’s sweeping shots frame the blueprint, often pausing to contemplate their sublime enormity. Villeneuve has a natural tendency to cut close-ups from a wide shot, to reveal an intimate detail or emotion. Heading into the world of Arrakis, our POV and the camera’s field of vision become one, our senses invaded by sights and sounds, so you feel intoxicated in the pure visceral power of the film. Desaturated colors emphasize a deserted landscape. Hans Zimmer is often referred to as his “Bram!” gets a bad rap for. But his work on Dune marries mass with intimacy, blending percussion and glee to impress. He doesn’t always dial up the volume, trading in decibels for moments of introspection, while extolling the silliness of civilization.

    The wall separating the viewer from the spectacle collapses with the film’s sound design. When sandworms make their grand entrance, the ground beneath us begins to shake. Engaging in the sensational Games of Dune makes for a participatory experience that is within range of a spatial attack, as if we are physically engaging in Arrakis. This operatic staged spectacle brings to mind what Richard Wagner describes in his essay, “The Artwork of the Future.” where he imagines that the viewer is “implanted … through all his visual and aural faculties” to an extent where he “forgets the confines of the auditorium, and lives and breathes now only in the artwork that he feels Life itself, and on the stage that seems to be a vast expanse of the whole world.”

    With Dune, Villeneuve revitalized that blockbuster with the marquee meaningless activity that Disney/Marvel replaced it with, calming its transportation appeal and sheer sense of wonder. When the entire audience responds with equal amounts of awe and enthusiasm to the sandworm-induced tremors, it serves as a great reminder of the communal pleasures that cinema can still conjure. Waiting for Dune: Part 2 looks like it might just be another long time to leave us hungry. But as they say, appetite is the best spice.

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