Dune Review: Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic starts promisingly with a largely satisfying part one

If the story is anything to go by, it’s been easier to fold space and time than to film Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic Dune, an epic distant future tale about sweeping space dynasties, secret sisters and New Age prophets who sticks to – and critiques – the genre’s classic heroic tale.

Many have tried and perished in the sandstorm. The wild-eyed Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky had magnificent designs – a 14-hour version, which he hoped to star Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles – which proved too ambitious to realize. Ridley Scott toyed with the idea before giving up and moving on.

David Lynch – a filmmaker in sync with Herbert’s psychic visions – reached all the way to the screen with a memorable grotesque piece of pop art in 1984, only to have it chopped down to the point where it was almost incoherent.

The latest filmmaker to have put his hand in the pain box, Canadian writer-director Denis Villeneuve, seems by comparison a bit of a strange choice. He is the kind of filmmaker who is dubiously marketed as a ‘visionary’ by the studios, even as his latest sci-fi entry – Arrival (2016); the deeply unnecessary Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – seems better suited to show flat screen TVs in designer apartments than to evoke any kind of sweeping mysterious future.

So it’s a pleasant surprise to report that his bid for Dune, which finally hits theaters this week, is a riveting, well-fitting adaptation that makes the most of his potential as a sci-fi craftsman – not exactly enough to qualify as a visionary work, but an ambitious and largely satisfying space opera that rises like an oasis against the desert in Hollywood’s current superhero cinema.

A 20-year-old man with tousled dark hair and a woman in her late 30s in a scarf stand set in a barren desert landscape
Villeneuve told director Guillermo del Toro in Interview Magazine that he wanted to make Dune feel “engrossing”. “The camera is just above his [Paul’s] shoulder and we try to understand the reality around him. “(Delivered: Warner Bros./Chiabella James)

Amplified by Hans Zimmer’s speaker-rumbling score – with its metronomic thump and guttural alien singing – the film is polished and commanding, full of huge wide images that dwarf the screen, jagged spacecraft that appear to appear from hazy oil paintings, and an admirable commitment to great, serious film myth creation.

But Dune’s most beautiful effect may be its cast, especially its young protagonists, androgynous Timothée Chalamet with baby face and Princess Zendaya with galaxy eyes – two children who are enough to suggest a brighter, or at least warmer, cosmic future.

Chalamet is Paul, the teenage heir to the noble House Atreides, a mall-goth glowerpuss who divides his time between learning the tricks of the mind from his witch mother, Lady Jessica (a soulful Rebecca Ferguson), and postponing the politics of the family business with Dad, house manager and resident dream boat, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac).

It is a very distant future – puddles with swords, imitated medieval prunings and bagpipes – and the galactic emperor has sent House Atreides to take care of Arrakis, the desert planet rich in spices that are essential for space travel.

A Latin American man in his 40s in military uniform is flanked by a 50-year-old man and a 70-something African-American man
“It’s about human personality and human emotions … It informed every single decision I made,” Australian film photographer Greig Fraser told The Screen Show.(Delivered by: Warner Bros.)

The appointment does not go down well with Atreides’ bitter rivals House Harkonnen, a planet of creepy creeps bathing in black slime, holding giant spiders as pets, and whose leader, Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård), appears to be modeled after Marlon Brando’s performance. in Apocalypse Now (1979).

Utilized for its natural resources, Arrakis – also known as Dune – is inhabited by the native Fremen, a bunch of blue-eyed nomads that include Zendaya Chani, the desert warrior who has appeared in Paul’s dreams.

These premonitions also suggest that Paul could be a kind of space miasma; to the great concern of Lady Jessica’s clan, Bene Gesserit, a shadowy, abominable order of psychic witches who have tried to summon a chosen one – a girl – to build a bridge between space and time, past and future.

“So much potential wasted on a man,” hisses the Reverend Mother of the Order, played by Charlotte Rampling in a neat echo of her all-female cult queen in John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974).

No wonder Paul looks so gloomy as he walks around like a post-punk wanderer across a sea of ​​fog.

A 20-year-old man with flop of hair pushed back and an angular jaw looks tired
“To have a big role in [this movie], you pinch yourself and the cheat syndrome you feel, that’s what Paul would feel, ”Chalamet told Variety.(Delivered by: Warner Bros.)

It’s certainly a lot to swallow for the uninitiated: a fact that made Lynch’s abbreviated version, in which poor Virginia Madsen (as Imperial Princess Irulan, heir to the galaxy) had to dispense rolls with exhibition over the eerie, spectral opening moments.

Villeneuve has the relative luxury of two chapters – be warned, this is only part 1 – and he uses this to his advantage so that the narrative can breathe towards the scope of the images.

Filming partly on location in Jordan, Abu Dhabi and Norway, Villeneuve, Australian film photographer Greig Fraser (Rogue One) and production designer Patrice Vermette (Sicario; Arrival) gives the story a sense of scale and lived-in details and welds the widescreen. Lawrence of Arabia’s (1962)’s breadth to the first Star Wars (1977) junk, a film whose desert sequences were famously inspired by Herbert’s writing.

The prospects are amplified by all the special effects that a reported $ 165 million budget can buy: combat glitter and glitter shields, insect-like ornithopters whizzing through sandstorms, and titanic spacecraft that appear to have teleported straight from the pulp covers of the 60s and 70s.

For sci-fi nuts, it’s hard to resist.

But the flashy effects are also offset by an attention to less-than-expected human-sized details: Jason Momoa’s easy-going, movie-star charms like Duncan Idaho, a swordsman that Paul loves; the way the great Stephen McKinley Henderson, as human computer Thufir Hawat, parades an umbrella during a military inspection; or the drinks distilled from sweat, tears and saliva – presumably not available in the Dune combination in the candy bar unless you incur the wrath of a disgruntled teenager.

A Native American man in his 40s is being cast in the shadows.  His hair is pushed back and he has an intense look.
“I wanted to make the film to please myself as a hardcore fan, but also to make sure my mom, who hadn’t actually read the book, would understand the story and not feel alienated,” the director told Deadline.(Delivered by: Warner Bros.)

What Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and Eric Roth (A Star Is Born) will do with Dune’s overall narrative – with its messianic leader and looming Holy War – is harder to judge, given the blatantly unfinished character of their story. .

At least in the first place, Paul is a character in conflict with his fate – as heir to a patriarchy that ravages an ecosystem; as a potential savior for a people – and Chalamet plays him with a suitably wrinkled forehead.

Villeneuve has also adjusted Herbert’s novel to open the film not on the Imperial Princess’ tale of Paul, but on Chani – which effectively frames events through the eyes of the Fremens.

“Who will our next oppressors be?” she wonders in the film’s opening minutes.

An African-American woman in her 20s certainly looks, standing with a palm pressed against a large rock
Parts of the film, including desert sequences and Paul’s visions, were filmed in IMAX, with the desert scenes filmed with a handheld camera.(Delivered by: Warner Bros.)

Atreides’ arrival in Arrakis carries the clear feeling that high-tech imperialists are landing to plunder a desert nation.

Elements drawn from Arab culture and Eastern mysticism run throughout Herbert’s work, which is filtered into themes of colonialism, ecological neglect and corruption of power, although this mix of cultures – a major tool in science fiction – fits less well with the present moment. creative license, no matter how nuanced it is, is considered with suspicion.

The new Dune has received some intelligent criticism for leveling out the nuances of Herbert’s text, toning down the source material’s anchoring in Middle Eastern culture, although Hans Zimmer’s resort to Arabic vocal tones – often used to emphasize an emotional momentary pause for the main characters – leans towards. a Western audience’s notion of the ‘mysterious’ of dramatic shorthand.

All of this could have been less remarkable if Villeneuve had been more attuned to the psychic power of images in the way Lynch, and certainly Jodorowsky, understood – the kind of filmmaking that could transcend an analog from the real world and transport an audience to something real. strange or strange.

His Dune is too polished and careful to risk putting a foot wrong – which makes sense given the history of this project, but it also means that there is nothing here who is willing to complain of ridicule, and by extension of which ingenious. (If we can not have pugs and snails, at least we could not have got Timothée Chalamet to do the worm instead of the sand walk?)

But it captures more than the attention, and sometimes it even arouses awe. If this is the beginning of a resurgence of ambitious, operational space fantasy, then come with it.

Dune is in theaters from December 2nd.

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