Dune 2021

I took English Lit in a catholic high school, and one of the assignments was a comparison of golden age authors against new age. To properly date that latter portion, I went to high school in the 90s. The books were of our choice, and I went and picked out Foundation and Empire by Asimov. I had read a few of his stories and thought it may be a good attempt (as it isn’t very big). I can still recall my teacher explaining to me I couldn’t pick a book in a series without starting at the start… and she offered instead that I pick up Dune. (I still read the Foundation series, multiple times over years… I’ll come back to this).

Dune is considered new wave (at least in today’s view) where sci-fi moved away from the technology and into the psychology of the characters. That’s in line with how society was coming to terms with the war being over and a bunch of flower children I suppose. I can still recall looking at the brick of a tome (before Wheel of Time’s doorstops) and wondering what I was getting into. I read the crap out of that book. And when I found out they made a movie about it, I was extremely excited! It was not a good movie, for many reasons. In the early 2000s we got a decent take on this with the Sci-Fi miniseries, with Children of Dune being a real standout.

Sci-fi, the good stuff, it not about laser beams and rocket ships. It’s often cerebral, and the dissection of what it means to be human in inhuman circumstances. That makes filming it quite difficult, as the exposition in a story is often hard to put on screen. You can’t just pick anyone to transform an idea from paper to screen – they have to fundamentally understand the entire story from start to end. The why more than the what. Dune is many things, and one of the more obvious ones is the examination of pre-determination, and religious zealots. Think about that for a minute. In today’s overly extra sensitive climate, how could any critique of religion not generate some negative feedback? Visually, the novel is sparse and monochromatic as the eponymous Dune is just one big giant desert. There’s a limit to how interesting you can make a desert.

Dune isn’t impossible to film because of it’s complexity, but it’s simplicity.

Denis Villeneuve

I have been a fan of him for a very long time. I’m fortunate enough to have experienced his earlier films in French, as he’s Canadian… and his extension into sci-fiction has been absolutely amazing. Arrival is based on a short story, with a slow burn pace that really messes with your assumptions throughout. Blade Runner 2049 is somehow an extension to a high point in sci-fi cinema. Of all the sci-fi sequels you have seen, how many would you actually consider ‘good’? Terminator 2 and Aliens are the only ones that come to mind, yet those are focused more on the action than the sci-fi portion (ironically, the 3rd+ films in those series are bad and from different directors).

Denis Villeneuve has a touch on both creating and presenting interesting characters, and framing them in such a way that the world is just as important. Think Zack Snyder’s ‘comic book shots’ but with actual purpose. There are very few directors today that can make the world itself a character, and Dune (the planet) is absolutely a character that needs focus.

Impossible Task

Making a great film requires so many pieces to fit really well together. The idea and script – for sure – but the passion from the actors as well. The sets need to be solid, the photography stellar, and the music emotive. There’s an element of luck here, both in the opportunity provided and then the ability to deliver. You’ll get something amazing like The Deer Hunter, and then from the same director, something horrible like Heaven’s Gate. Consistency is very rare, and then being consistent with social expectations even more so. Zack Snyder is super consistent. 300 and The Watchmen are deconstructions of their comic book variants, filmed in nearly the same method. That worked in earlier context. Man of Steel is a rough film because you are comparing it to something like Iron Man or The Avengers.

There are very few directors that have general free reign to build a film of their choice. Peter Jackson still has that, though it’s been a while. Christopher Nolan prints money. Clint Eastwood directs a heck of a film. How many others have a string of not only commercial but critical successes?

The Film

How about I actually talk about it for a minute?

Give the above constraints, the film does a spectacular job in all the meaningful areas. It wisely avoids the spacing guild’s theatrics and focuses almost entirely on the people and the planet(s). There’s no voice over, not internal dialogue, you never see the emperor. There’s no fantasy elements here – it feels physical and raw, which is a fascinating thing for any sci-fi movie. Certainly helps that every actor does a great job with their characters. I could do with a stronger Jessica, as the Bene Gesserit threat isn’t as obvious here as it is in the books. And Jason Momoa’s Duncan is well, Jason Momoa. That works in this film’s context, but Duncan is a pivotal character in the series and I’m curious how that will play out. Timothée Chalamet really surprised me. Paul is a complex character, where he is continuously fighting against a destiny that he didn’t want, and a teenager no less. It’s an interesting take to have multiple perspectives of the same vision, though I can see how some would see it repetitive.

The director of photography, combined with the musical score are borderline nature documentary in quality. It is hard to make a monochrome setting interesting, without some form of overexposure, but I found it worked really well here. The books really focus on how the Fremen are the desert, and vice versa. The limited exposure of Fremen in this film mean that the desert has to do the lifting. It’s like it’s giving people permission to simply exist. The sandworms appear more realistic than the world destroyers found in other iterations, which again is more in line with the books. This is the type of film that is made for the movie theatre, it’s an experience!

I think that’s the part I enjoyed the most about this interpretation. Similar to Jackson’s original LotR trilogy, it’s crystal clear that the production team understands the source material. They aren’t trying to put their spin on the story, but are trying to bring a complex story from the 60s to the 2020s.

If I had one disappointment is that the story ends earlier than I expected, and that the 2nd part won’t start filming for nearly a year. The benefit here is that the actual characters will have real-world aged, which is appropriate since their time in the desert is not a short one. The downside is that I am very much looking forward to more of this.

Absolutely a film to see.

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