Released 2021. Director: Denis Villeneuve
WE CAN NOW FINALLY PUT AWAY THE 1984 MOVIE VERSION OF DUNE and never speak of it again. I’m sure the movie has a cult following, of which I’m not a member. Director David Lynch allegedly said he “probably shouldn’t have done that picture”. Whilst his vision was badly tempered by the studio and other interfering forces back then, adapting Frank Herbert’s landmark tome to the screen couldn’t have been easy. Others have tried and failed.
Now comes Dune: Part One, the highly anticipated sci-fi fantasy of the pandemic era painstakingly put together under the direction of Denis Villeneuve. If you’re unfamiliar with the man’s work, I highly recommend you catch up. From searing and riveting dramas such as Incendies and Prisoners to knock-out action thrillers Sicario to cerebral and genre kickers Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, the choice of Villeneuve as director inspires confidence in tackling the Dune legacy.
Dune is an epic saga about a battle for a spice that’s crucial for human vitality as well as intergalactic travel, somewhat like an energy source, in other words. There are warring tribes from different planets, mind-controlling powers, betrayals, assassinations, giant sandworms and lots and lots of sand. Underpinning these elements is a young man’s journey in discovering his place as the chosen one and coming to grips with his destiny.
Set way into the future, 10191 AD to be exact, the world of Dune is expansive and massive. From the never-ending landscape to the super-sized structures, the word big is just a tiny three-letter word no longer sufficient as an adjective.
It’s also a peculiar blend of the advanced and the ancient. Look at their incredible flying machines (especially the enormous cylindrical transporter and the dragonfly-inspired Ornithopter) to see how technology has progressed. And yet the world they live in has the appearance of an ancient civilization. Their costumes blend archaic with survival tech. Their speech pattern always guarded, heavy with an inflection of doom.
The planet Arrakis, where most of the action takes place, is a harsh desert where the native Fremen people will remind you of Lawrence of Arabia. Whether it’s Arrakis or the ocean planet of Caladan, Villeneuve goes for the superlative in every shot and shows us the vastness of the land on the ground and in the air, complemented with army troops numbering thousands in military formations. In a way, Dune is the sci-fi equivalent of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings in its focus on scope and scale.
You need to have a really comfortable seat because Dune is also a long movie, clocking in at 2 hours 35 minutes. Except in scenes where they’re fighting, most of the time is filled with a sense of unhurried awe, kind of like being in a temple or a monastery where you know nobody should walk faster than a strolling pace. A dreamy rhythm carries the movie along, gently set in motion by Hans Zimmer’s meditative score which seems to render certain moments to inch and flutter in slow motion.
Timothee Chalamet cuts a willowy figure as Paul from the House of Atreides, whose father Duke Leto has been sent to take over Arrakis and the production of its priceless commodity. The moody teenager’s training in perfecting his innate prescient abilities is troubled by his visions of the future. Silhouetted against the desert, the image of Paul invokes comparisons with Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, a stark contrast not only in the choice of colour (black for Paul, white for Luke) but the tone, attitude and inherent mysticism of the characters as heroes-to-be in their respective quests.
Besides Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson (as his mother), Oscar Isaac (as his father), Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgard, Javier Bardem and Zendaya leave diverse impressions but ultimately all the human characters are supporting figures to the monumental production design and - with no disrespect to say - they’re swallowed up by their colossal surroundings.
There are many things to admire about this iteration of Dune. That being said, the movie also takes itself very seriously and at times, too glum and grave. Villeneuve’s approach has so much calculated awe factor one can’t help feeling he’s ended up making a gallery exhibit. You’ve come to marvel at this work of art but find yourself standing behind a velvet rope a few paces away. Until the arrival of Dune: Part Two, the captivating visuals and the air of grandness is a lengthy set-up for the drama and heroism yet to come. For now, this is a sophisticated update and prelude, a spectacle that compels admiration from a distance.
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