Saturday, October 30, 2021

Film Review: Dune (2021)


(Thank you again for your patience this month, Dear Reader.  In addition to the time constraints mentioned earlier this month, we had a family health emergency which has required frequent visits to medical facilities.  Your continued patience with updates is greatly appreciated.)

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

Dune is one of the most beautifully shot films I have seen in a long while.  Visually, it reminds me most of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It has a sweeping grandeur that not only shows you epic vistas, but it makes you feel like something grand and momentous is happening right before your eyes.  Seeing Dune is a real cinematic experience.

The story of Dune is difficult to explain.  Frank Herbert's novel is an incredibly complex tapestry of sci-fi, fantasy, politics, and prophecy.  The story centers around Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet).  He is the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his consort Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).  They are the royal house of the planet Caladan.  There are several rival houses in the galactic empire, include House Harkonnen (the enemy of the Atreides), who are led by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgard).  The Harkonnens have controlled the desert planet Arrakis.  As barren and violent as this world is, it is the most important because it is the only world where they have the Spice Melange which not only has psychic and longevity properties but is what makes interstellar travel possible.  

At the beginning of the movie, the Emperor has ordered House Atreides to take over Arrakis.  However, this is a trap for Duke Leto and his family.  On Arrakis, they will have to deal with assassination plots, gigantic sandworms, and hostile natives called the Fremen.  Helping House Atredies are warriors Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa), "mentat" (which means someone with a brain like a computer) Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and head of security Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin).  

On top of this, Lady Jessica belongs to a mystical order called the Bene Gesserit, who have been trying to bring about a prophesied messiah.  And this messiah may or may not be Paul.

That is a lot for any audience to process, but director Denis Villeneuve does a fantastic job of balancing everything in a way that is not overwhelming.  To again bring up Jackson's Lord of the Rings, both directors knew how to use the complicated backstory to lay down a lived-in world with a rich history in which characters can richly explore the story space.

The first half of the movie moves with some wonderful tension.  You can feel the noose tightening around the Atreides family.  Villeneuve takes this world seriously enough for you to feel the gravity of everything that is happening.  Compare this to David Lynch's awful 1986 version of the film and you can feel immeadiately a difference in the love for the story.

I can understand if some people think the film takes itself too seriously.  There is no winking at the camera like we see in Marvel films.  The only real humor comes from Duncan Idaho.  Everything else is treated with the seriosness of a Shakespearean tragedy.

The performances are excellent.  I think that I have now become a fan of Chalamet, rather against my will.  After watching his charming turn in Little Women and now his excellent work in Dune, I see now what other big-name directors have seen.  He is able to play the contradiction that is Paul: he is caught between childhood and manhood, between innocence and wisdom, between power and powerlessness.  Vileneuve makes sure to surround Paul with exceedingly masculine men to show his smallness.  But Chamalet uses every ounce of his charisma to push through this physical limitation to command every scene he is in.

Isaac plays a stubborn nobility that rages against the inherent dishonesty surrounding him.  Ferguson does a great job of someone who has spent their entire life in control of their emotions, so that when her fear overwhelms her it forces the audience to feel that fear as well.  I was surprised how much I enjoyed the subtley of Skarsgard's evil.  He is able to convey a lot of malice with a simple tone of voice.  Brolin does a good job, along with other actors Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, David Dastmalchian, and Zendeya.  But Momoa is absolutely the standout.  If there is a Han Solo to Dune it is Duncan Idaho.  He has a devil-may-care charisma while making you feel his absolute loyalty.  If there is any one character you want to be from this movie, it is Duncan.

The movie tackles some big themes like fate, free-will, violence, power, cultural clashes, etc.  To the movie's credit it does not try to dumb down this challenges but invites the audience to enter into the complexity.

The movie does have some flaws.  The biggest one is that the second half is not paced well.  The most intense parts of the movie are in the middle and then Paul's journey requires the entire plot to slow down and it involves a number of sequences of vague visions.  

Another issue is that there is a slight emotional distance to the story.  There are some great moments in the beginning of real pathos, like with Leto tells Paul that all he ever has to be his is son.  But as most people play nobles who are constantly playing diplomacy and politics, there is a formality to everyting that is a little cold.  And as Paul becomes more hardened, this becomes even more true as the story unfolds.  

Finally, as transportive as Hans Zimmer's score is, this movie does what Tenet did where the music and soundscapes drown out the dialogue sometimes.  This may be the effect that is intended, but it makes for a frustrating experience.

Vileneuve has done an incredible job.  He understands what great science fiction films are supposed to do: transport you to a bold and epic universe only experience in the imagination and on the big screen.

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