Dune (2021)

DENIS VILLENEUVE

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

Alternate Title: Dune: Part One

United States/, 2021. , , . Screenplay by , Denis Villeneuve, , based on the novel by . Cinematography by . Produced by , , , , Denis Villeneuve. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by , . Film Editing by .

The saga of bringing Frank Herbert’s perennially beloved 1965 novel to the big screen is a journey well known to many filmgoers, beginning with the aborted attempt by Alejandro Jodorowsky to make a lavish adaptation whose production was detailed so beautifully in Frank Pavich’s deservedly celebrated documentary (which is still, by any measure, the best of any adaptations of the book). In 1984, producer Raffaella De Laurentiis and director David Lynch took up the mantle, and their effort resulted in a film whose kinky visual inventiveness is still beloved by its cult of fans but whose narrative capsizes under its imbalances (blamed, by many accounts, on studio-dictated eleventh hour cuts), while the Sci-Fi channel’s 2000 miniseries and its follow-up, Children Of Dune, paid due reverence to Herbert’s plot but skimped on the aesthetic dazzle. Denis Villeneuve, now established as the definition of post-modern, cynical yet indulgent science-fiction worldmaking for his successes with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, attempts to take the best of the previous versions and combine them for a film that hopefully both robustly translates Herbert’s novel and adequately conveys the sense of its otherworldly culture rich with both beauty and menace. Does he succeed at making a good movie?

It begins when the House of Atreides, a family of wealth and high position, are ordered to leave their paradise of a planet, under orders from the Emperor to take over the ruling over the world of Arrakis, a desert planet that produces the spices that the rest of the known galaxy relies on for just about everything. The patriarch of the family, Duke Leto Atreides (), shows up with the noble intentions of harvesting enough spice to impress his ruler while integrating successfully with the planet’s indigenous peoples, the Fremen, who, in this thinly veiled allegory of the sugar trade in Earth’s earlier centuries, have always had a brittle relationship with the greedy but powerful overseers from other planets who have been plundering their world for its resources. Leto’s concubine Lady Jessica (, in a surprisingly noticeable performance, for her) is a member of the Bene Gesserit, an order of mystical women, and she has prepared her son Paul () to inherit as much otherworldly power from her as he gets terrestrial authority from his father. In one of the film’s few truly invigorating and arresting scenes, Paul’s abilities are tested by a bewitching and she gives us the first suggestion, repeated often throughout the rest of the film, that he will be a messiah of sorts that Arrakis has been waiting for; the planet’s valuable output and the axis of power of their interconnected worlds needs to be pushed in a new direction, away from the evil House of Harkonnen, whose only interest in Arrakis is monetary and not cultural (and if that’s not obvious enough, as the Baron Harkonnen is transformed by the makeup department into Gluttony from Seven to really drive the point home).

This is an exciting set-up for what will hopefully turn out to be a very satisfying beginning to one more science-fiction franchise, for while Villeneuve’s stylish direction emphasizes an almost exact recreation of Blade Runner’s vibe, it’s also elegant and features moments of great wonder and awe. The mistake that the producers have made, though, is the one that producers have been making for decades, thinking that this novel (and its sequels) should be made into movies in the first place: sure, it takes place in outer space, but it’s not exactly Star Wars, two hours of political factions outmaneuvering each other isn’t all that thrilling and the characters are more positions than personalities. Maybe we don’t need the wide-eyed, awshucks exuberance of George Lucas’s imagination (and we’re spared his bad dialogue), but more passion and vulnerability from the characters, who are more like symbolic figures, would help move things along. Villeneuve tries to make up for this by really leaning into the colonialism allegory, but in the end it’s still a film that, while admirable and accomplished, isn’t exactly arresting, and choosing to end it where it does returns me to my earlier question but doesn’t answer the part I was looking to have answered. Is it a good movie? Most of its running time is spent establishing its environment, familiarizing us with the various characters who will be shifted around the chessboard of strategy that the plot is concerned with, and then ends just as the conflicts that make for actual drama are beginning to warm up. So, it’s good, but…is it actually a movie?

Toronto International Film Festival: 2021

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