Thursday, 21 October 2021

Dune: Part One

The year 10,191 of the Imperial Calendar. The power of the interstellar Imperium is based on the spice melange, which extends life, expands consciousness and, through the powers it grants the Navigators of the Spacing Guild, allows for interstellar travel and commerce. The spice is found only on one planet in known space: Arrakis, the desert world also called Dune. After eighty years of brutal occupation by House Harkonnen, the noble Atreides family has been tasked to take possession of Arrakis and mine the spice. Duke Leto Atreides seeks an alliance with the native Fremen to facilitate mining, but he is also aware that the Emperor fears his growing popularity and power. Meanwhile, Leto's son Paul is having unusual dreams and becoming aware that his very birth may have been orchestrated as part of a darker plot...

Dune is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, having shifted some twenty million copies since its publication in 1965. Frank Herbert's novel is a strange beast for such a perennial bestseller, a cold and remote story of feuding houses, Byzantine politics and prescient visions swirling around a hallucinogenic substance which can shift the course of worlds. It lacks the warmth and heart of, say, The Lord of the Rings or even the comradeship and passions which break up the backstabbing and Machiavellian intrigue of Game of Thrones, but its intelligence and complexity have resonated strongly across the decades.

Denis Villeneuve has created the third version of Dune to hit the screens, following David Lynch's overstuffed 1984 film and John Harrison's painfully under-budgeted 2000 mini-series. Like those directors, he's run into the problem of Dune being too long for a single film and too short to turn into a TV series unless you also adapt adapt the increasingly obtuse and decreasingly popular sequels, which Harrison did with some success in 2003's Children of Dune mini-series. Villeneuve's solution is a gamble: breaking the film into two parts but only being able to shoot the first half, with the second contingent on the first part's success. A curious gamble by both director and the studio when the likes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Matrix sequels show the benefits in time and money of making the different parts in one go.

Dune: Part One (a distinction only found in the movie's title sequence and not on any of the marketing materials) takes advantage of its luxurious running time to build its world of feuding noble houses and a cynical take on the Hero's Journey, where the native Fremen of Arrakis have legends of the coming of a saviour and hero, unaware that they've been deliberately seeded into their culture in past centuries by the conniving Bene Gesserit sisterhood. This cynicism has put off casual audiences in the past even as it excites those bored of yet another retelling of yet another Frodo Skywalker who saves the world, and this film does a good job of balancing the comforting predictability of the story whilst also offering the view that such stories have become stale. Paul's visions grow increasingly apocalyptic as the film continues and he becomes more concerned that the future he is hurtling towards may be a nightmare, but one he is increasingly powerless to avert.

Villeneuve's previous movies, particularly his previous SF masterpieces Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, have stood him in good stead for delivering a film of thunderous visual power, where almost every single frame could be framed and hung on the wall as a work of art. But Dune risks over-indulgence. Villeneuve's past films have been tempered by the need to tell and conclude a story in a reasonable timeframe, whilst Dune is allowed to sprawl. Yes, Zendaya in white silk staring moodily across the desert is a cool image, but we probably could have done with a few less shots of that and maybe a few more moments expanding on characters like Thufir Hawat or Dr. Yueh, who in this film come across as under-developed. A particular delight of Lynch's Dune was Brad Dourif's eloquently batty Piter De Vries, but David Dastmalchian's take on the character is so anonymous he might as well have not even turned up (his sole saving grace being a brief side-quest that gives us a tantalising glimpse of the Imperial prison planet of Salusa Secundus).

The film also takes an odd counter-approach to Lynch's 1984 attempt. Lynch's movie was overstuffed, trying to ram too many characters into its run-time. Villeneuve strips the story almost bare here, with no sign of Emperor Shaddam IV, his daughter Irulan, his confidante Count Fenring, Baron Harkonnen's young nephew and heir apparent Feyd-Rautha, and no voice given to the Spacing Guild. Oddly, Villeneuve's greater run-time across two pictures would have allowed him to include and set up their stories much better, but instead they're MIA altogether and, apart from the Emperor, not even mentioned.

The score is haunting and powerful, even if, as with many Hans Zimmer scores, the sound mix feels off. Several key moments of dialogue are buried under the music and the sheer loudness of the soundtrack is something to behold. In almost forty years of going to the cinema, I've never left one with my ears ringing as much as after this one.

But there is much that Villeneuve does right. The imagery is fantastic and evocative. The actors who are here do career-best work, with Timothée Chalamet overcoming doubts about his casting to convince absolutely as Paul Atreides and Zendaya making the most of limited screen time as Chani. Javier Bardem's chilled-but-lethal vibe as Stilgar is also tremendously entertaining and might be the film's standout performance, and Rebecca Ferguson, Dave Bautista, Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin all deliver excellent performances. There is no doubt whatsoever why so many hundreds of thousands of men and women would follow Oscar Isaac's magnificent beard into battle. Jason Momoa also overcomes fears of his bro-dude vibe not being a good fit for Duncan Idaho, with his Duncan becoming a charismatic and sympathetic character.

The vfx are outstanding, given time to breathe and not overwhelm the rest of the picture. The worms are more enigmatic, strange and lethal than prior depictions. The action sequences are, mostly, excellent (save some clumsy fight scenes which may leave the audience wondering if the reputation of the Sardaukar has been a bit oversold), and, finally, a book-accurate depiction of ornithopters will leave many Dune fans with massive smiles on their faces. The CGI kangaroo-mice are cool as hell.

Dune: Part One (****) is a qualified success, delivering an overwhelming cinematic spectacle that taps Frank Herbert's novel and strips away ancillary material that distracts from the core narrative. The atmosphere and tone are sumptuous, and the clearer stakes make the story easier to get a handle on. But secondary characters are under-developed and, in a few cases, not developed at all. The film also doesn't climax, instead just pausing (albeit on a fairly iconic image from the books). A fairer assessment of Villeneuve's project may hinge on its second half being made. In the meantime, Dune: Part One is on general release worldwide and is streaming now on HBO Max in the United States.

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