_REVIEW.   it’s about _FILM.   words _LUKE WHITTICASE.
dir. _DENIS VILLENEUVE.   rating _12A.   release _21st OCT.

October 28, 2021

images © Warner Bros. 2021

So, at long last, Dune. It’s strange to come to terms with the prospect of Frank Herbert’s widely celebrated masterpiece of science-fiction literature finally making it to screen after all this time. Although prior attempts and adaptations have been made – notably David Lynch’s 1984 bloated cult oddity and a somewhat more successful Sci-Fi Channel miniseries in the early 2000’s – the efforts to wrangle the weighty tome of a text into something cinematically workable have proven surprisingly difficult.

Not because the text itself is telling a story too difficult to grasp or beyond comprehension, but mainly owing to the deeply entrenched nuances of its intricate world-building of names, places, items, rituals and people, its thematic grounding, its unwieldy, sometimes dense and impenetrable prose, as well as its direct and indirect groundings in historical significance that draw from a well of influence ranging from medieval Byzantine fantasy and cosmic transformation to the life of T.E. Lawrence.

To say there is much to digest behind the subtext of the book’s function and purpose as a generation-defining text in the genre – this is very much to science-fiction literature as, say, Tolkien is to fantasy – is an understatement. The problem that is faced is how much do you realise and where do you draw the line? In diluting the majesty of these deeply entrenched concepts at play, you run the risk of having just another white saviour narrative wherein our young male hero (man of the hour Timothy Chalamet) is called to his destiny saving the natives of a foreign land whose resources are being harvested for political and capital gain. A narrative trope so familiar as to almost be rote. Much like John Carter of Mars, these are narrative hallmarks that have been mined for nearly a century.

The challenge, then, has never been to answer the question of whether someone can make an accessible and inherently cinematic adaptation out of Dune, but rather whether they can do so whilst also managing to stay true to to the essence of its higher-minded ideas concerning consciousness, fate, revolution and revelation.

Fortunately, the answer we have in the form of filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One (as titled on screen, we’ll get to that) is a mostly satisfying one. An epic science-fiction studio blockbuster that delivers on the expected visual splendour that is to be expected from the director of Blade Runner 2049, and on a narrative and cinematic sensory level is just about the best of what could have been expected of such a production – some casting choices for certain Arab and Islamic based characters aside.

The vistas Villeneuve presents are stunning to say the least. Greig Fraser’s cinematography grants everything a lived-in, washed-out aesthetic that manages to unify the different worlds depicted into something of a believable whole, and that’s without mentioning the gorgeously unique production design running the full gamut of clothing, makeup, set dressing and the design of spacecrafts that feel at once rustic and functional yet distinct. The aural and sensory stimulus is bombastic and loud. Villeneuve certainly grants everything a sense of enormous visual scale when it comes to landscapes, of tiny vessels exiting the centre of a spacecraft in orbit, only for these tiny crafts to measure to entire city blocks on the planet surface. That being said, it does feel weirdly underpopulated at points even given the size of the speaking cast.

Hans Zimmer’s score is expectedly grandiose; a rapturous blend of assorted sounds and instruments to account for the themes of different houses and overtures, from pounding drums and choral swells to throat singing and bagpipes.

Frank Herbert’s epic of science-fiction literature (pictured above in its 2015 50th Anniversary Edition) has proven a challenging adaptation to bring to the screen in the past.

When it comes to the storytelling itself, Villeneuve’s sense of pacing certainly helps the film to sprawl and extend itself in order to settle us into its world and conflicts before things start going bang. Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth’s screenplay strikes the right tonal balance between mythologic portent, accessible summer blockbuster and high fantasy fare. There are very few compromises in the faithfulness of events from the text, though it does occasionally stumble to the repetition of already established information and expositional dialogue that feel slightly unnatural under the circumstances.

The cast are generally outstanding, perfectly suited to their positions as both stand-ins and fleshed-out figures within the narrative. There is a briskness to some of them that feels like some more attention could have been paid, and a few beats missed when it comes to emotional exploration and clarity even if it does feel that there are at times being held unintentionally or accidentally at arms length.

Oscar Isaac does well as Duke Leto, the descendent of once great men who walks into a losing battle for the sake of his house and pride. Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin turn their hardened warriors into scene stealers through sheer charisma and chemistry alone. Stellan Skarsgård is a grotesque scenery-chewing delight as villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a man so gluttonous that he uses antigravity equipment to float around the scenery to humorous yet haunting effect.

Frank Herbert’s epic of science-fiction literature (pictured above in its 2015 50th Anniversary Edition) has proven a challenging adaptation to bring to the screen in the past.

But Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica almost walks away with the entire film, a performance of deeply rooted pain kept at bay behind closed doors, carrying the burden of guilt and shame thrust upon her by her sisterhood, the secretive and matriarchal Bene Gesserit.

Affirming his position as a bonafide tentpole lead, Chalamet is excellent as the young chosen-one-to-be too, cocky and adolescent yet struggling to come to terms with his own destiny, untapped power and potential, calling him from across time and space to a blood-soaked fate that may rob him of his humanity in the process. Most enticingly, by the time the credits roll, it’s clear that his journey and awakening have only just begun.

Therein lies the primary issue at the heart of the film, though. This being the first of what is intended (and hoped) to be a two-parter, the climax doesn’t entirely satisfy as an ending in and of itself, leaving so much once again stranded in the speculative status of benefit of the doubt when it comes to how the rest of the narrative will play out and satisfy what has already been established.

There’s also the unusual circumstance of the film’s reliance on flash-forwards that offer glimpses of events predetermined to happen. While they operate well on the level of the themes and narrative track concerning a future that has and always will be, forcing its hero into the role of an active participant trapped within a passive narrative he knows he will not escape, it does suck some of the suspense out of a piece of cinematic storytelling when visualised as such in some unforeseen ways.

Still, despite a second act lull and a non-climax of sorts when nearing its final reels, Dune presents a rather breath-taking cinematic experience to take in. The full level of Villeneuve’s achievement will only be realised when we get round to the recently-confirmed Part 2. But even as a slightly uneven half a story, it still stands as a tremendously exciting, visually engaging and full-blown operatic blockbuster of extremely high calibre and craft, and one whose existence is worth celebrating alone.

Frequently breathtaking in scope and execution, Dune is a technical & artistic marvel, but its structure and narrative trappings mean Villeneuve’s legacy here will live or die by what follows in Part 2.


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