Dune (2021)



Main Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson

Director: Denis Villeneuve

I remain in a bit of a funk as I have yet to find a new theatrical project worthy of my talents and star power.  The scripts that have been arriving via special courier and parcel post just don’t seem to be the sorts of things to which a living legend like myself should lend my name and countenance.  The only one that arrived this week with any possibilities was a new adaptation of Cervantes entitled Woman of La Mancha in which I would play Donna Quixote, a modern day fashion designer and descendant of the famous 16th century hero who finds herself tilting at various metaphorical windmills in her attempts to establish herself in the top ranks of European couture houses. 

The script, as stands, would require a certain amount of rewriting as the character of Donna seems to disappear from the pages for a number of long digressions into the textile import/export business and the few musical numbers seem to be rather lugubrious affairs without major work from the dance ensemble.  I’ve returned the script with twenty three pages of notes and, if they incorporate my superior ideas, then we’ll have my people talk to their people.  If nothing else, the film is slated to shoot in Spain and Portugal and a little international holiday sounds like just the sort of thing that might jar me out of my funk.

To tilt or not to tilt, that is the question…

In order to celebrate the possibility of something coming down the pike, I rounded up some of my bosom companions, including Leah, my director of consumer products, Madame Mimi, my vocal coach, Lulu Pigg, my tap therapist, and Madame Laurie, my accompanist, and treated them all to lunch at Ardor, recently reopened on Sunset Boulevard where we feasted on vegetable plates and managed to demolish three or four bottles of the house Riesling.  None of us was in any condition to drive and I had given the chauffeur the day off, so we called an Uber and soon we were all packed into the back of a Range Rover.  We were going to head back to Condo Maine to continue the party when Leah suggested a spontaneous beach trip instead.

Jonathan, our Uberist, took us to Venice Beach where we bought several pitchers of sangria from an esplanade café and proceeded to flirt with the boys and wiggle our toes in the briny.  More Sangria and then we decided to head off together to the multiplex to enjoy a film.  We were all covered with sand, courtesy of the human pyramid we had formed on the beach which collapsed when Madame Laurie tried to entice a compact, but lovely muscled beach boy to climb to the top, so I suggested we head for the new sand epic Dune (Lawrence of Arabia not being on the bill this week). My suggestion was met with enthusiasm so off we all went, and we even took Jonathan along so as to be sure to have a compatible driver waiting for us at the end of the show.

I have been a fan of Frank Herbert’s novel of Paul Atreides and the desert planet Arrakis since I first read Dune back in the early 1970s and have seen the two previous film treatments (David Lynch’s opulent catastrophe in 1984 and the SyFy network’s miniseries in 2000) multiple times.  Neither of the previous two attempts to bring Dune to the screen satisfied for very different reasons.  David Lynch ran afoul of the studio executives of the time and the cutting of the film to less than two hours and twenty minutes left the plot unintelligible and the characters uninvolving, despite some very good casting and a gorgeous production design. 

The miniseries gave plenty of time for the story to breathe and even added a few subplots for minor characters but suffered from low budget effects and lower budget casting. I’m pleased to say that the third time’s the charm and that this current version of Dune works like gangbusters.  Writer/director Denis Villeneuve has been wise enough to split the story in two.  This film is only the first half of the story of the novel (the second half being promised for the fall of 2023) and the two and a half hour run time is just right for us to get the full story, the screenplay cleaving faithfully to the book, allowing us to understand who these characters are, to feel for their dilemmas, to understand the desert planet, and to have a sense of the greater politics that motivate the plot. 

Dune is a story of the far future, many thousands of years from now, when the human race has bridged the distances between the stars and inhabits many planets, under the rule of the Padishah emperor.  House Atreides rules the planet of Caladan, led by Duke Leo Atreides (Oscar Isaac).  His concubine of many years, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), has borne him a son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet), against the orders of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood to which she belongs.  These women have undertaken a prolonged human breeding program to try and produce a male with supernatural abilities, the Kwisatz Haderach. 

The emperor, fearful of the military might of the Atreides clan, orders them to leave Caladan and to assume rule of the desert planet Arrakis, an inhospitable place that is strategically important as it’s the only known source of the spice, mélange.  The spice has effects on human consciousness and is critical in allowing interstellar pilots to be able to safely fold space and time for space travel, making it invaluable. 

Arrakis had formerly been in control of the evil House Harkonnen led by Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard in a fat suit) and his nephew, Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista).  The Atreides family and their henchmen including warrior Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Doctor Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), bodyguard Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and human computer Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) attempt to adapt to their strange new surroundings with the help of palace housekeeper Shadout Mapes (Golda Rosheuvel) and imperial planetologist Dr. Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster).  But treachery is afoot as the emperor works to engineer the fall of House Atreides and Paul and Jessica find themselves abandoned in the deep desert seeking help from the natives, the Fremen, led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and the beautiful Chani (Zendaya). Will Paul grow into his destiny?  Will the Fremen prove to be the allies he needs to exact his revenge?  Will the giant sandworms of the desert prove to hold secrets of their own?  Stay tuned for the second film.

As I said earlier, Dune is very faithful to the novel, which is carefully plotted, and by trusting in Frank Herbert’s vision (he was an ecologist who wrote the book in order to develop a story about a unique ecosystem), this version gets the story right.  We’re never lost in who is who or what the motivations are behind various reversals of fortune.  There are a few minor things missing (likely to turn up in a director’s cut Blu-Ray) including a famous banquet scene when the Atreides first arrive on Arrakis and Paul begins to take his first steps towards manhood and understanding the nature of power and an explanation of why there are no computers (machines that think having been outlawed earlier in human history – specially trained humans called mentats now perform those functions).  The mentats are reduced to bit parts which is too bad as it means one of my favorite villains of the piece, Piter DeVries (David Dastmalchian) who serves Baron Harkonnen, is reduced to a blink and you’ll miss his cameo.

The Dune production design (Patrice Vermette) is glorious in that it feels very real, very old, and very lived in.  Things don’t look too new or too freshly varnished.  Anyone who has ever been in a real working government building knows that even the ceremonial rooms have a patina of age and that outside of the public reception halls, things tend to be untidy and full of dark corners.  I was particularly taken by the various bas relief artwork in the Arrakis royal palace which gives a sense of a primitive mythos and religious mysticism that we only glimpse and cannot comprehend.  I was also quite taken by Robert Morgan and Jacqueline West’s costumes.  These garments are lived in, washed multiple times, sometimes patched and with discreet stains.  They feel like clothes created for particular climates, not like court costume.  Hans Zimmer’s brooding musical score also adds to the effect.

In the lead role, young Timothee Chalamet is quite convincing as Paul.  His slender build and pale coloring make him seem very young and inexperienced when we first meet him, but he’s old enough and a good enough actor to start and project a certain presence of mind and gravitas as Dune proceeds and we can believe in his ability to survive the odds stacked against him.  It will be interesting to see how he handles the rest of Paul’s journey in the next film.  Rebecca Ferguson is also quite good as the Lady Jessica and director Villeneuve, in his handling of the story, makes the two of them the through line throughout the film.  Many of the supporting cast are quite memorable.  I was particularly impressed with Sharon Duncan-Brewster as the unflappable Dr. Kynes (a character who is male in the novel.  The switch to female makes perfect sense in the way the story unfolds).  Josh Brolin and Oscar Isaac provide strength and decent acting.  Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista provide muscle and comic book charm.

Dune is definitely worth an evening out at the movies.  I’d even pay the extra few dollars to see it in IMAX if that is an option in your area.  The sweeping vistas of the desert planet look marvelous when blown up to vast size.  Just don’t cuddle up to your neighbor unless you’re both wearing masks. You can pretend you’re Fremen conserving your body water.

Bull statuette.  Dock rising from water. Mud bath. Box of pain. Frilly parasol. Gratuitous drawing of blood.  Entombed soldier. Poison tooth.  Endangered sand crawler. Multiple heroic deaths. Incinerated palm trees. 

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

Image by krystianwin from Pixabay

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