Dune (2021)

*. In my notes on David Lynch’s Dune I remarked that there were certain problems that had to be overcome before Frank Herbert’s novel could be successfully adapted for the big screen. Or, put another way, movies had to evolve (not progress, but evolve) in a certain way for it to happen. In particular, I think there were two main challenges.
*. In the first place, the effects had to be much better. This was the easiest challenge to be overcome, and indeed was pretty much inevitable. With CGI a whole new cinematic experience became standard for most SF/action/superhero movies. I loved the art design in Lynch’s movie, but will confess that the effects, especially the blue screen, were dismal. Though I did think the sandworms looked pretty good.
*. The second challenge was tougher. How to translate such an epic novel (and indeed an original trilogy of novels that was later spun into a franchise) into something digestible? Lynch’s first draft ran around 4 hours, but the studio insisted on cuts, which ended up making it feel rushed at the end.
*. In the 2020s this was no longer a problem. The question or run time was essentially answered by franchise film making and the creation of various filmic universes (Marvel, DC, Star Wars, etc.). Audiences had been trained to watch films this way, to the point where this movie could “end” with what I thought was a really lame “This is only the beginning . . .” line. I can still remember how angry audiences were at The Empire Strikes Back when they tried this, but they got away with it. By 2021 serial filmmaking was de rigueure, with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows being made into two feature films, Stephen King’s It coming in two chapters, and The Hobbit dragged through three (!) instalments. What’s more, even the individual movies in these “universe” franchises would happily run 2 1/2 or three hours, blowing past the usual 90 minute shuffle.
*. In short: Denis Villeneuve had a free hand to work at whatever pace he wanted to bring Frank Herbert to screen. Not to mention all the money in the world as well. He indulged. And overindulged.
*. Part of the problem with adapting any work with a built-in fan base, from superhero comics to splatter-film remakes, is that fans expect a lot of deference to be paid to the originals. Over time, a sort of sclerosis has set in. One can understand Batman having to be pulled back from the camp excesses of Adam West and George Clooney, but as the years have gone by he’s only become gloomier, darker, and more made of stone.
*. In the case of the Dune novels one imagines the fan base being even less inclined to cut any slack. As intellectual property, Dune is holy ground, SF&F scripture, but Lynch’s film was a joke almost on the order of Flash Gordon (1980). What was needed was someone who was going to take the whole Dune mythology seriously. On this score, Villeneuve delivered and fans approved. My response, however, was less enthusiastic.
*. I have to first register a caveat made by Villeneuve himself, who claimed nobody was seeing this movie the way it was meant to be seen. Not only were cinemas closed for the pandemic, but this was a movie that was shot in IMAX format. I watched the DVD (not BluRay) at home on a not-very-large TV. So not ideal for the kind of experience that Villeneuve was aiming for. That said . . .
*. It’s a movie designed to look big rather than interesting. Personally, I thought the art of Lynch’s version superior. Everything here was supersized, but dull. Take all those phalanxes of soldiers, a staple since Star Wars (which took them from Triumph of the Will). These are boring, but they’re an essential element in the visual grammar here. Note how they’re repeated in the spice silos, for example.

*. And just why is everything so big? What’s the point of that ginormous door in the palace? Or all the rooms that are the size of airplane hangars? OK, sure, it probably looks good on an IMAX screen, but it just felt silly, and the look became repetitive.

*. Hans Zimmer’s score sounded ponderous to me. I can’t recall any of it. I don’t even know if it was music or just background sound. The point only seemed to bludgeon. But then, given what Zimmer was looking at I don’t know what else he was feeling. I imagine him being told to “make it big.”
*. Given how much more time they had, the script doesn’t have to work so hard at exposition. But the dialogue is just as heavy as Zimmer’s score. Except for the odd moment when Paul and his mom put on their stillsuits and he asks her “Are you good?” That line gave rise to my only smile. Well, that and the bagpipes. And maybe looking at Timothée Chalamet’s curls hanging down over his eyes and wondering how he could see anything.
*. With the script and the production being what they are, the cast mainly just have to look their parts. Stern. Strong. Resilient. Josh Brolin. Jason Momoa. Dave Bautista. These guys are just muscle, and none of them has the presence of Sting. Oscar Isaac actually made me miss Jürgen Prochnow, who I think he was trying to imitate. Rebecca Ferguson was a lone bright spot. As for Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, what word best encapsulates his performance? Moody? Trenchcoat emo? Stoned?

*. I guess Chalamet looks the part of a moody princeling. He’d just played Prince Hal, after all. But would some sign of emotion have been too much to ask? What is wrong with this young man? As an actor his eyes are simply dead. Dead! No matter what the situation you look at his face and he seems totally zonked. One wonders how he’s going to handle the sequel(s), when Paul really does spend most of his time high on spice. How is he going to look even more spaced out than he already does here?
*. You have to roll with the idea that in the distant future we’ll have all this neat tech but still be living in stone palaces, fighting with swords, and ruled over by various royal houses. What actually bothered me most though was that they’re still using the Fahrenheit scale for temperature. Now that really is imperial.
*. Given how big sandworms are, why would they even bother chasing after and eating humans? That would be like me eating the legs of an ant. And how exactly does a sandworm digest a spice harvester, and excrete the metal parts?
*. In the Lynch film Harkonnen is pronounced Har-KOH-nen. Here it’s HAR-kuh-nen. I wonder if Herbert had a preference.

*. The racial angle was probably always going to be awkward, but what they had to work with is still poorly handled. Let’s face it, the forces of empire are British colonialists sucking oil out of the desert and Paul as the messiah is the Great White Hope of the universe since the natives can’t do it for themselves. Those natives, the Fremen, are an assortment of off-whites. Dr. Yueh is Chinese, naturally, and even speaks Mandarin. His character is given short shrift, to the point where his motivation in betraying the House of Atreides all but disappears.
*. Villeneuve didn’t have to embrace the wild lunacy of Lynch, with the cows being carved up and the cat being milked, but I really wish there’d been more weirdness here. Even the stuffed bull head struck me as boring symbolism. Though I did like Duke Leto being nude for his death scene. I can’t remember if that was in the book, but it’s a fanciful touch that I thought worked. Meanwhile, I honestly thought the personal shields in Lynch’s movie looked cooler. The nostril plugs, however, are improved to the point where they aren’t quite as disconcerting.
*. So fans, at least most of them, got what they wanted. I thought it was well produced, reverent, and dull. I think I’ve seen most of Denis Villeneuve’s movies now. His best, and the only one I thought was great, was Enemy. Sicario was pretty good. But Arrival was overrated and Blade Runner 2049 poor. I really hope he isn’t becoming typecast for these kinds of productions, as I don’t think it’s where his heart is. Lynch went his own way after his bad experience with Dune and it would be nice if Villeneuve followed that lead in creating work he found more creatively inspired by. It sometimes seems to me that films like this can by done by just about any competent engineer these days. And before long we might even have software that can do the job.

13 thoughts on “Dune (2021)

  1. film-authority.com

    I’m looking forward to see Chalamet develop his acting to go with Paul’s changing character. This looked awsome on the big screen, shame you didn’t dig it! Did not not like the space mouse?

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I have a hard time seeing Chalamet doing anything beyond just giving us a Paul who is even more blank than he is here. I do think I probably missed something not seeing this on an IMAX screen, but that’s the way things roll. The mouse was cute.

      Reply
  2. fragglerocking

    Haven’t seen this yet, Phil is borrowing the bluray from his pal at work so will get to see it soonish. I have read the trilogy and enjoyed the first part and second, but was quite fed up of it by the time I finished. That’s probably some kind of sacrilegious statement but there was no joy in it at all and that’s wearing.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s quite faithful to the spirit of the books, but I thought it needed more of a spark to offset all the epic ooh and ahh stuff. It does look nice.

      Reply
  3. Bookstooge

    Heretic.
    Unbeliever.
    May Shai-hulud devour your pitiful self the next time you take the bins out!

    As you know, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I think it was a step up from the SyFy channel’s miniseries (which had a small budget unfortunately) and it’s faithfulness to the original narrative was one of the biggest plus’s ever.

    I will agree that the soundtrack wasn’t much of a soundtrack. It was tailor made for the movie and not as a standalone thing.

    the miniseries pronounced it Har-kuh-nen too (I think. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched it).

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I never saw the TV version. SyFy wouldn’t fill me with confidence though. You need a big budget to take on a project like this or else you’re going to end up with nothing. They spent the money on this and got what they paid for. I just wished it had more of an original spark of something.

      Reply
      1. Alex Good Post author

        Not quite. They could have been faithful to the book but not presented it in such a familiar manner. This is just so big that it feels like the life is being sucked out of some of the more intense dramatic scenes. Paul being tested by the box, for example. Nothing interesting was done with that. Or the poison dart. Or even the fight scenes. In all these cases you could argue that Lynch did it better. Or the sandworms could have been revealed in a way that made them scarier, and their arrival more suspenseful. Here all you want to see is a great big monster rearing its giant head.

        I did like the fluttering wings on the ornithopters.

      2. Bookstooge

        I’m lost, sorry. Not trying to be obtuse on purpose or argumentative, but I don’t understand. I’m guessing this is some sort of visual medium thing, because all of those scenes you mention were done “by the book” and so I don’t understand how you could ask for more from them.
        Could you give me a concrete example, or another book/movie comparison?

      3. Alex Good Post author

        Look at the testing with the box, or “gom jabbar” scene. First of all, the characters are placed in a room the size of a stadium, which diminishes them and took me right out of things. Then it’s so damn dark you can’t see anything. Then Charlotte Rampling is wearing a veil so you wouldn’t be able to see her face even if the lights were on. So no expression there (Villeneuve wanted “distance,” which I thought was the wrong idea). Then how is it presented in a way that represents Paul’s pain? The cutaways are . . . what? Palm trees burning? A hand above the sand? The Fremen girl holding a bloody knife? This is all just mystical mumbo-jumbo, how does it represent Paul’s pain or what he’s feeling, as opposed to just registering visual leitmotifs and foreshadowings?

        It’s cool that Villeneuve wanted the actors to sell the scene on their own without effects, but . . . Rampling is wearing a veil and Chalemet is Chalemet. Does he look like he’s experiencing excruciating pain? Is this scene scary? If you can’t convey how badly Paul wants to pull his hand out of that box then it’s not working, and I don’t think it does.

        Also: the cutaways to Paul’s mom outside the door clutching her belly are a distraction, again taking us away from what’s happening inside. You can’t build tension with those kinds of cuts (or Paul’s “visions”) because they’re taking you (literally) out of the scene.

        He could have kept what happens in the scene exactly the same (that is, been faithful to the source) and (I think) made it more effective by trying something creative like maybe a kind of dolly zoom on Paul’s hand, which might have helped sell the notion of Paul wanting to pull his hand out of the box but being unable to through the shift in perspective. I think they could have built up a bit more to the mystery of what’s in the box before Paul actually sticks his hand in it. I wouldn’t have shown it from his point of view but as something with its own threatening presence. Zimmer’s score also does nothing to build suspense but just comes in to triumphantly blare Paul’s visions at us.

        These are ideas that may be no good. But it seems to me that Villeneuve just does the scene in a very flat way.

        Now if you want to hear Villeneuve (and he is an award-winning director and I am not) explaining why it’s such a great scene, you can listen to him break it down here. I took from what he says that he’s obsessed with art and sound design but I didn’t see where he gave any insight into why he thought the scene worked dramatically.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think that’s an issue with all of these properties that have huge built-in fan bases going back generations. Everyone has to act like they’re filming the Bible or something.

      Reply

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