Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Dune (2021): A Review

DUNE (2021)

It has been nearly forty years since the first attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's massive science fiction epic Dune to the silver screen. The David Lynch adaption is not fondly remembered by fans and critics (though I will take a look at his Dune later). For Denis Villeneuve version is a massive epic, carefully crafting its universe even if at times it is ponderous to the point of pomposity.

The planet Arrakis is the only place in the known universe where "spice" is found. This spice allows for greater human powers and interstellar travel. For twenty years the House Harkonnen has ruled Arrakis through the approval of Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. The Emperor, however, has now granted control of Arrakis to their bitter rivals, House Atreides.

Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) takes up his command, bringing his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet). The Lady Jessica once was part of the Bene Gesserit, a nun-like order with great mental powers. She has trained Paul in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, but Paul is a troubled young man.

He has strange dreams of a woman on Arrakis, one who may play a role in his future. While Duke Leto is working to reach rapprochement with the native Fremen, the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) with the Emperor's silent blessing, plots to destroy House Atreides and retake Arrakis: both the planet and the riches the spice grants them.

House Harkonnen manages to retake the fortress on Arrakis, but Paul and the Lady Jessica survived thanks to their mental powers. As they find some Fremen, Paul sees Chani (Zendaya), the literal woman of his dreams. Could now-Duke Paul Atreides be the Messiah long-prophesied by the Fremen?

In terms of production, Dune is an absolute marvel. I am one of the millions who have at least heard of Dune but have never read it. As such, it is simply impossible for me to judge how faithful this adaptation is to the Herbert tome, but I imagine that if anything Villeneuve (adapting the novel with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) took the source material seriously. Major credit should be given to them for giving novices information without being clumsy but in a naturalistic way (such as a variation of an audiobook on the backstory of the Fremen).

The detail in Dune is rich and deep, evoking this universe where all the planets are fully formed and real. The ocean-dominated Caladan, home of House Atreides, the dark, sinister Giede Prime of House Harkonnen, the vast emptiness of Arrakis: all of them are filmed in such a way as to be fully immersive. Greig Fraser's cinematography is breathtaking in how all these worlds are unique to themselves.

The universe in Dune is equaled by the detail in the production design. This appears to be both a futurist and ancient world, one where space travel blend seamlessly with ancient rites and rituals. Dune also blends Hans Zimmer's sometimes grand, sometimes surprisingly gentle score into this universe. 

The overall effect is to provide the viewer with a plausible, grand universe. On that level alone, of creating this grand visual spectacle, Dune is a massive success. Again, by taking things seriously, Dune builds this complex universe and brings an epic yet comprehensible feel to it.

Its seriousness is however, one of Dune's flaws. The characters, settings and situations are such that they behave as if they all know the various goings-on are so grand and epic that it becomes ponderous and stifling. The near-total lack of humor or life sometimes suffocates Dune to where the characters appear almost pompous in how they see the universe. The various Houses and their associates appear to have no lives outside their grand epic mannerisms. 

That makes the few times Dune attempts to have even a little levity, the fact that it falls flat makes the seriousness all the more pronounced. While the massive scope and political machinations in Dune don't lend themselves to lightness, the intense gravitas can make things look drier than the sandworms that dominate Arrakis. This goes into almost all the performances, where Villeneuve does not give the actors much of a chance to more beyond "I Am Serious and Will Behave Accordingly At All Times". 

Still, credit where it is due, and there were some highlights. All of House Atreides (Isaac, Ferguson and Chalamet) should be credited with strong performances. A special note for Ferguson, whose Lady Jessica was both strong and vulnerable: able to handle herself but still frightened for her son enduring a physical test by her former order. Isaac's Duke Leto managed to show the caring father behind the serious leader, and Chalamet's willowy looks makes it believable that this conflicted young man may rise to be the long-awaited Arrakis messiah. Also of note is Skarsgard, though he does not appear often in Dune. His Baron is engulfed in shadows, but his menacing manner works well for this villainous figure.

While this somberness bordering on grating manner is one of Dune's few great flaws, it remains a flaw that keeps me from fully embracing the film. Despite this, the overall nature of Dune leaves the viewer wildly impressed in its epic nature.


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