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Fear is the mind-killer – ‘Dune’

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Every once in a while, there is a movie experience that manages to transcend a lot of the traditional markers that define quality, however nebulously. Most films you watch, they’re relatively easy to parse – I liked it because X, I didn’t like it because Y, you know the drill. But occasionally, a film will come along that moves beyond those identifiers; your reasoning is still there, of course, but there’s also something fundamentally overwhelming about it.

“Dune” overwhelmed me.

The new film from director Denis Villeneuve – who also co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts (adapted from Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel of the same name – or the first half or so anyway) is a sprawling, sand-strewn epic. It is a movie that unabashedly embraces not just the letter but the spirit of its source material, resulting in a deliberately-paced and utterly gorgeous film that captures the sheer scale of galactic intrigue while also delving into the psychological and sociological underpinnings that come when nobility takes different approaches to maintaining their humanity.

It’s a space opera, for sure, with plenty of familiar tropes of the genre at play. But the combination of Hebert’s interplay of eco-consciousness and political dynamics matched with the auteur’s eye of Villeneuve transforms “Dune” into something far more. It is a literal feast for the eyes, one of the most strikingly compelling visual blockbusters we’ve seen in years, all in service to a dense plot involving everything from galaxy-spanning empires to mind-expanding traditions to colonialism to learning what it means to lead.

Yeah – overwhelming is the right way to put it. And this is just the first part!

In a far-flung future, noble houses serve at the pleasure of the Emperor, operating in sometimes-uneasy alliance with one another. These houses maintain connection across the vast chasms between planets through space travel, but space travel is only rendered possible by the psychoactive properties of a mineral known colloquially as spice – a mineral found on only one world, the desert planet Arrakis.

For years, House Harkonnen controlled spice production on Arrakis, mining and processing the mineral even as they steered clear of the planet’s natives – people known as Fremen, yes, but also the enormous sandworms that roam just beneath the surface of the sand. Now, though, the Emperor wishes for House Atreides of the water planet Caladan to assume command of spice production.

Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) heads House Atreides, alongside his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), an acolyte of the mysterious Bene Gesserit, an order of women devoted to developing superhuman mental and physical powers. Their son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) has been trained to take over from his father – in the ways of war by weapons master Gurney (Josh Brolin) and swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and in the ways of the Bene Gesserit by his mother. He is of both worlds, a position that will prove either his downfall or his salvation.

But betrayal lurks. The darkly powerful Baron Harkkanen (Stellan Skarsgard) has his own agenda regarding Arrakis – his warrior nephew Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista) leads the way alongside imperial troops whose mere presence indicates that there’s something far more sinister at work behind the scenes of the Arrakis changeover.

Paul’s destiny, it seems – dark or light – will be found amidst the blowing, dangerous sands of Arrakis. Is he meant to become a unifying force? Or a divisive martyr? Or something in-between?

I’m going to be real here – I could spend another thousand words walking you through the narrative and all the assorted lore attached to it. Villeneuve has really embraced the denseness of Herbert’s text, finding all manner of ways in which to more fully illustrate the circumstances without resorting to intrusive narration or exposition dumps. The interiority of the novel leans a lot on telling rather than showing; this means that “Dune” as a narrative does occasionally get weighed down somewhat, but the fact that it is only occasionally speaks well to Villeneuve’s vision.

And oh, that vision.

“Dune” is one of the most spectacularly visual films I’ve seen in some time. Whether capturing the staid, angular grandeur of the grand noble houses and the vast starships or the stark, haunting beauty of the ever-blowing desert sands, this movie is straight-up sumptuous. Seriously – we’re talking about moments that evoke nothing so much as “Lawrence of Arabia.” Not that it’s a huge surprise, given Villeneuve’s well-documented brilliance regarding visual composition (particularly when it comes to sci-fi), but still. Just gorgeous.

As far as narrative, well … it’s complicated. I greatly appreciate work – particularly sci-fi – that doesn’t feel beholden to the gods of exposition. I’m not looking to have my hand held, and I think Villeneuve does a solid job of finding ways to world-build through context – showing, not telling. I will concede that my own general familiarity with and affinity for Frank Herbert’s novels give me a leg up as far as understanding the more esoteric plot mechanics, though ultimately, I think even those with little to no knowledge of “Dune” writ large will have little trouble following the thread (though I definitely get the folks who struggle with the downbeat abruptness of the ending here, though I disagree).

The cast is astonishing. Chalamet, love him or hate him, is an ideal fit for Paul Atreides; he has the wan physicality and emotive eyes that suit Paul’s journey from somewhat callow youth to potential leader. He maybe broods a bit too much, but hey – that’s Paul Atreides. Oscar Isaac is Oscar Isaac, just bringing the heat in all the best ways; cast him as all the noblemen, because dude is regal. Ferguson is wonderful as Lady Jessica, walking the line between demure noblewoman and fervent acolyte … all while radiating love for both her lord and her son. Skarsgaard is a bald, glowering, dripping creepshow and absolutely slays. Brolin, Momoa, Bautista – all playing varying flavors of space warrior with aplomb. Oh, and Zendaya is here, though we don’t get much of her – expect a whole lot more when Part 2 rolls around.

“Dune” overwhelmed me. And it’s not that it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen, though it’s very good. It’s the sheer scale of it all – a film that brings forth brilliant visual beauty while also maintaining that sense of philosophical denseness that drives the novel. The spice must flow.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 26 October 2021 12:40

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