Saturday, October 23, 2021

Spice World: DUNE

An audience first coming to Frank Herbert’s Dune through its latest adaptation will recognize its component parts from sci-fi and fantasy that have followed its original 1965 publication. It has Avatar’s interplanetary extractive industry colonists, Game of Thrones’ feuding feudal families, and Star Wars’ galactic empire, potential rebels, and mysterious psychic sects. Though threads from its tapestry are shared in its genre compatriots, its sense of ponderous impenetrability, a DeMille-by-way-of-Asmiov majestic Old Testament density, is an impressive edifice all its own. Denis Villeneuve is the third filmmaker to attempt a screen translation of this major work in the sci-fi canon. After David Lynch wrestled it down to one film to mixed results in 1984, and a team of television makers did a more faithful miniseries for Sci-Fi Channel in 2000 (with cheap digital effects that were slightly impressive at the time, but now have more in common with Windows 98 screensavers), this 150-minute effort tells the first half of the book. We meet the Atredies, a ruling family (parents Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac, and son Timothée Chalamet) who have, at the Emperor’s command, taken over the production of spice—a drug that doubles as spaceship fuel—from the evil Harkonnens. That family got rich off the mines on the desert planet of Arrakis, but fought the indigenous Fremen at every turn. The Atredies hope to win wealth with peace instead. Nice idea, but the sturm und drang of galactic unrest churns conspiracies in which nasty, greedy, scrabbling people in dark rooms and ominous shadows scheme to take them down.

Villeneuve sets the stage well. His pivot from the heavy thrillers that brought him to Hollywood (Prisoners, Sicario) to ponderous science fiction (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) has been a productive one. His eye for cold majesty and ear for terse genre dialogue is the keen balance of cinematic poetry and prose that makes for some fine stunning vistas of imagination. Here we get something like and yet unlike other space operas. There’s a love of grand takes offs and landings, watching the gears turn on enormous dragonfly-winged helicopters and monolithic ships, and the sliding doors on the side of New Age ziggurats rising out of the desert like something in a nouveau-ancient-Egyptian-revival. He knows how to accumulate detail and give it the undertow of inevitable tragedy. He creates a world of awe-filled spectacle, balanced between dread and drama while playing off its sense of having returned from an alien future world with the kind of attentive visual splendor you’d find in a Biblical epic or Shakespearean tragedy. One might think of L.P. Hartley’s famous line claiming “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So, too, the future. Here we are dropped into a tangle of ongoing political machinations, colonial strife, religious prophecies and rituals, and cut-throat capitalist ceremony, and watch as various factions—draped in flowing robes and bedazzled headpieces, skin-tight battle suits and protective gear—intone gravely about all they fear is to come. We learn the various groups’ traditions and values, their rituals and hopes, and then watch them all collide and blow apart.

The result is a grand introduction that may or may not go anywhere. It leaves the sense of feeling incomplete. As it trudges along so seriously and full of grave pronouncements, Chalamet contemplates the heavy crown of his future, while the others strut and pose and fret in cavernous sets. It gets a bit monotonous from time to time. I found myself spending the last thirty minutes or so wondering on what cliffhanger it would end more than I was wrapped up in the narrative. Maybe the whole thing would play better after a second feature, cut together as one five-hour sprawl. Because it has the soul of a Ten Commandments (maybe the best comparison point, if you bled it of its overtly colorful camp qualities) straining to escape and go on and on and on. Instead it finds every thread and arc halted abruptly with a cut to black while somehow still stretching to fill its space. (The last line: “this is only the beginning.”) So it’s half a movie. But it’s an intriguing one, full of striking design and heavy soundscapes. It’s a feast of bit parts for a huge eclectic ensemble of familiar actors crowding around the margins—Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jason Momoa, Zendaya—who are prepared to chew around expositional jargon with perfect gravity. It has images that tower with the most literally awesome of any Hollywood epic, and sound that rumbles and quakes with import. Clearly everyone involved cared. It’s an experience, compelling with every wide shot and sonic flourish. But it’s hard to feel too excited when it hits an inciting incident and then peters out.

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