Dune

***

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Dune
"It is pretty."

The first on the black screen a thickness of sound, a throatsinging. We will learn later where that comes from, who that presages, in a film laden with prophecy.

This is not the first attempt to film Dune, but that is a discussion for elsewhere. Dune itself is a work informed by film, the blue eyes of the Fremen an echo in text of Peter O'Toole's in Lawrence Of Arabia. The deserts here are muted, the eyes too. This is not glorious technicolour. Greig Fraser's palette is overcooked and unsaturated, David Lean and Freddie Young made something that feels of its age and so too Denis Villeneuve and Fraser.

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Bits of this Dune recall Black Hawk Down, Star Wars - no surprise with Fraser as he did Rogue One and Zero Dark Thirty. A focus on the mechanical, faces in dark and shadow and fog. This is not Villeneuve's first adaptation of award winning science fiction, while Frank Herbert's novel Dune won Hugo and Nebula the Ted Chiang novella that became Arrival (Story Of Your Life) won Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo. Dune duly is in august company, age notwithstanding.

1965 the novel, 2021 the film, but we are in the year 10191. Plain text on screen, planets above, Hans Zimmer's score a swelling. Sometimes in the hollows of the guild's starships we can see other planets, but these are the simplest design in a production where much is at once ornament and austerity.

Identical ships, and fiddly survival gear. Flying machines with eight wings and none. Warriors that float, shields for fighting men that require and colour-code the killing blows. Blue didn't get through. Red is dead. Commands issued with the weight of authority and with audioprocessing to convey that they are in the imperative. Secretive cults with big hats and journeys to visit that recall in several senses Kurtz at the end of the river.

The fighting a bit of a disappointment. At least one massed battle is just lumps of men running at each other while explosions turn the orange dark a brighter shade. There is power to it, but rarely grace and subtlety. This is seen elsewhere too.

The cast large, even in the space of it all many have but a few lines. A litany of characters and names to conjure with, and in and among the exposition repetition and omission both. There are changes from the text, too many to discuss without potentially spoiling here. Planets are named in white text, described. There are subtitles for handsigns, the languages of the various cultures, the cone of silence. This is near enough the only assistance, but to say more, again, would be to risk spoilers.

It is not one to say that Villeneuve and his co-writers have teased out a new organising metaphor, I think. The matadorial conflict, differently unequal, almost inevitably fatal, the essence of redirection is appropriate. Not just within the film but as an adaptation because I and many familiar with the parent work are lumbering towards a distracting flag. I do not think as an adaptation Villeneuve lands the blow, and as entertainment I do not think it diverts enough to allow another spear. Jon Spaights (Prometheus, The Mummy (2017) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Postman) are no strangers to science fictional legacies or literary adaptations but the quality of their work is mixed. It many not be too many cooks but it does feel underspiced.

It is pretty. Not as startling and stark as some. The sand is large but I wonder how often it is intended that screen and not image conveys the grandness. It is homogenous too. The uniforms of the various groups at once lack the simplicity and signifiers of stormtroopers and the variety and invention of the rebels.

An ending too, or at least after two hours and more a point where the first part stops. That perhaps is the most frustrating thing. My feelings for it as an adaptation are confounded by weight of expectation but as a film after two and a half hours I would hope for a sense of an ending but it did not appear. I'm not even certain I wanted more.

As a thing itself it's got beats of story, setup, but there are key elements of plot that I think were underdeveloped that I was helped with because I had done my homework. Fans of the cast will be underserved unless they're mostly there for Timothy Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson. The prosthetics on Stellen Skarsgard are different than the ones on the Baron Harkonnen in Lynch's Dune and he is differently grotesque. There's not that same element of the grand guignol and if there are abominations here, voice dispels rather than describes them. Zendaya is in it very briefly, and it remains to be seen what will be in Part Two.

That I think is the issue with it as a film - it is not a whole thing in itself. As such I feel it difficult to judge because it invites consideration in context with that declaration in its title. Part One. That investment is a sizeable one, and without a better idea as to return it is not one I would recommend lightly.

With previous adaptations differently failed, it has been clear that Jodorowsky and Lynch were not the right ones for the task. At the moment it is not certain if Villeneuve is either.


Editor's note: if you know the literary background to this story well, check out our in-depth review by the same writer.

Reviewed on: 21 Oct 2021
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A young man must survive on the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people.

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Andrew Robertson ***

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth, based on the novel by Frank Herbert

Starring: Rebecca Ferguson, David Dastmalchian, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Timothée Chalamet, Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chen Chang, Michael Nardone

Year: 2021

Runtime: 155 minutes

Country: US, Canada


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