Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Movie Review: Dune (2021)

Denis Villeneuve is back with another triumphant sci-fi opus, this one a new adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic novel Dune.  Well, to be more precise, half of the novel.  Not wanting to make the same mistake as his predecessors in cramming the densely complex source material into a single film, Villeneuve has opted to give Dune the IT treatment, shooting only half of the story and saving the rest for later.  This tactic certainly allowed the story to breathe and made for a much clearer narrative, but also left this filmgoer eager to see the rest, now please....

As with his breathtaking Blade Runner sequel, Villeneuve and his collaborators (not least of which is cinematographer Greig Fraser) have created a meticulously detailed, visually dazzling landscape in which this classic tale of enviro-politics plays out.  The various worlds are fully realized, creating real spaces in our imagination, from the picturesque beaches of Caladan, home of House Atreides, to the Harkonnens' murky, industrial wasteland of Geidi Prime, to the desolate, arid Arrakis, the titular "Dune."  The production design here is on point, as is the gorgeous photography.

But where Dune soars even higher is in the audio department.  Legendary composer Hans Zimmer provides the booming, ominously textural score, his low strings echoing some of his work in Christopher Nolan's films (Villeneuve cites Nolan as an influence and it shows) while finding new ways to create otherworldly sounds via built-from-scratch instruments.  Even above Zimmer's always prodigious work though, the sound design is Oscar-worthy.  For example, Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica practice "the voice," a Force-like use of vocal sound to control an enemy's actions, depicted here as a monstrous, rumbling growl mixed with distant, forceful screams.  At one point we see a legion of Sardukar troops assembling at the instruction of a chanting leader whose voice resembles an overdriven didgeridoo.  Baron Harkonnen's voice is a mixture of Stellan Skarsgard's own voice and what sounds like a gritty digital distortion.  Touches like this make us feel like we're really in a world unlike our own, and it's truly immersive.
And of course there's the loaded cast.  Timothee Chalamet as the teenaged Paul is youthfully impetuous but also carries the burden of an unsure heir to the Atreides throne, while coming to terms with his developing powers and the possibility of his being the "chosen one."  Rebecca Ferguson is protective of her son but terrified of what he may become, while still defiant toward some of her Bene Gesserit customs.  Oscar Isaac is gallant and open as Duke Leto, determined to forge an alliance with the Fremen of Arrakis and far more trusting of them than his fiercely loyal lieutenant Gurney Halleck (a terse, stonefaced Josh Brolin).  Skarsgard is repulsive (though not in a gross-out, B-horror film way like Kenneth McMillan in the 1984 film) as the bloated, floating Baron, bathing in regenerative oil baths, a scathing visual metaphor for the obscene excesses of fossil fuel bigwigs.  An unexpected standout is Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet Kynes, a role played somewhat thanklessly by Max Von Siedow in 1984, but far more fleshed out in this film.  Kynes is tasked by the Padishah Emperor with overseeing the transition of power on Arrakis from Harkonnen to Atreides, but gets far more than she bargained for when her boss's secret plan comes to fruition.  Duncan-Brewster quite aptly conveys Kynes' arc, initially distrustful of any great House wanting to exploit Arrakis for political gain, later gaining growing respect for the altruistic Duke Leto and his family.  Indeed, the Atreides' quest to win over the mysterious Fremen is given much more time to develop here than in the Lynch film, and it ultimately becomes the central plot thread.

My only real gripe about Dune 2021 is that the Harkonnens are sadly not given much screen time.  As they're the film's main onscreen antagonists I expected to see more of them and their homeworld; perhaps Villeneuve will release a Director's Cut as Peter Jackson did with Lord of the Rings?  The Baron, his older nephew Rabban (an imposing Dave Bautista) and his Mentat adviser Piter (David Dastmalchian) are the only major Harkonnen characters shown, and not even a mention of the younger nephew Feyd-Rautha who plays a central role in the novel's second half.  Nor have we met the Emperor himself, his daughter Irulan, or the Guild Navigators whose political pressure serves as a large part of his motivation.  I wonder how much footage has been filmed for the second part, if any.  It seems something of a waste to build such elaborate Harkonnen sets and makeup for such a small amount of screen time.

All things considered though, Villeneuve's Dune is a pretty masterful realization of the novel, visually and auditorily mesmerizing and boasting strong performances from top to bottom.  I can't wait to see the rest of the story.  

I give Dune ***1/2 out of ****.

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