Dune (2021)

October 21st, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Denis Villeneuve; Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgard, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa; USA/ Canada 2021, 155 min.

The forth realised adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 cult novel Dune, directed by Québécoise filmaker Denis Villeneuve (2049) is big news – with a budget of 165 million dollars Warner Brothers have taken a gamble in the hope that streaming on their platform HBO Max and good receipts at the cinema box office will guarantee a sequel covering the second half of Herbert’s book.

After the David Lynch version of 1984 was butchered by the producers (from 180 to 137 minutes), and two TV mini-series, Villeneuve’s almost two hour version could be seen as a mere set-up for the all-revealing two-and-half hour denouement – or even part of a new franchise. But Part Two is not a certainty at all, if you cast your mind back to the troubles Alejandro Jodorowsky had in the early 1970s, when even Salvatore Dali failed to get the Chilean helmer’s project off the ground, spawning only Frank Pavich’s 2013 doc exploring its contingent failure.

To their credit, Villeneuve and co-writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaiths, have played down only the background of the saga, so that non-aficionados of the Herbert novel can enjoy the more entertaining intrigues and endless battles: in the far, far future humankind has conquered the universe due to a super, life-enhancing spice that super-charges the brain endowing humans with preternatural powers of rapid mobility in space travel, that today would take millions of years. The downside is that this super-dust, called Spice, is only found on the planet Arrakis, aka Dune, where giant sandworms contribute to a very inhospitable environment.

The indigenous population known as Fremen (read Free Men) are engaged in an ongoing battle to combat the colonisation of the Emperor’s armies. Enter the House of Atreides, a noble family who is ordered by the Emperor to take charge of Dune and its rebellious population. They take over from the House of Harkonnen, but it is not clear if the Atreides are getting a promotion, or are just a toy in the hands of the Imperial ruler. Duke Leto (Isaac) of Atreides, his concubine Jessica (Ferguson) and their son Paul (Chalamet) arrive on Dune, only to be ambushed by evil Baron Harkonnen (Skarsgard). Paul’s mother belongs to a tribe of women known as the ‘Bene Gesserit’,who have been engaged for centuries in creating “The One” – but it’s still uncertain if Paul is really this long-awaited saviour.

Jessica trains her son in the art of “Voice”, which allows its user total mind control. Paul is being prepared for battle by Gurney (Brolin) and Idaho (Momoa), so he can lead the stranded family on their way to salvation on Dune, whilst taking the Spice and dreaming of Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen woman, whom we only see in Paul’s dreams. Will the enigmatic Paul and Jessica become allies of the Fremen, or is this just the start of hostilities with the black-clad Harkonnen?

The two-part script structure is clearly flawed but Villeneuve, DoP Greig Fraser and PD Patrice Vermette have created a totally unique universe where sandstorms (aka climate change?) pose an even greater threat than the mayhem caused by human armies. This is brutalist futurism where helicopters fly like birds with insect wings, and the Harkonnen army, with their hairless, pale faces bring to mind the SS ‘Angels of Death’. But the graphic descriptions of the battle scenes often feel  repetitive and gradually lose their power to shock, becoming ineffectual. DUNE is certainly a visual masterpiece, so let’s hope the producers’ pay-as-you-go strategy pays off with Part II. Shame though the the whole thing couldn’t have been down in one go. AS

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