Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Sand and sci-fi in other-worldly ‘Dune’

     Here's the essence of what needs to be said about director Denis Villeneuve's long-awaited adaptation of Dune, the 1965 Frank Herbert novel that has acquired classic status among    many sci-fi enthusiasts.   
   Far more comprehensible than David Lynch's 1984 version, as well as more visually expansive and better acted, Villeneuve's Dune seems designed to please the novel's legion of fans. If it does, that's no small achievement.
    Beyond that, the movie shouldn't overly confound those who know nothing of the Dune universe. It also stands as a worthy testament to what the visual imagination can achieve when trying to bring a complex work of fiction to the screen.
   Herbert's lengthy novel may have made a better mini-series than a feature, but Villeneuve's version (actually only half of the story) benefits from being seen on the largest screen possible in a theater with a sound system geared to rattling brains inside pop-corn munching skulls.
   Villeneuve successfully creates a fantasy world in which vehicles resembling helicopters flutter multiple sets of wings and vast expanses of a desert planet stretch endlessly toward the  horizon. It's possible that Dune makes the most expressive use of sand in any movie since Lawrence of Arabia.
  Still a word of caution: There's something inherently frustrating about a two-hour and 35-minute movie that ends by telling us we've just witnessed "the beginning."
   The thing that separates Dune from other sci-fi ventures is it's pervasive strangeness, an otherworldly quality reflected in the movie’s costume design and in the names of its characters. 
   Young Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) may be the longed-for Kwisatz Haderach. (Don’t ask).
   Paul's mother  Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is the concubine of Paul's father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and a member of the Bene Gesserit, women with special powers.
   Stellan Skarsgård appears as the obscenely bloated Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the story's villain.
   I'll torture you with no more of these names. I mention them because they suggest that Dune is more than a hunk of sci-fi with rich ecological and anti-mechanistic ambitions. A distinctive cult flavor evokes comparisons with works such as Lord of the Rings, at least in the impact Dune has had on devotees. 
  Two additional characters register in the movie's sea of eccentricity. Jason Momoa plays Duncan Idaho, an engagingly robust warrior on whom Paul has a man crush. Josh Brolin portrays Gurney Halleck, Paul's combat instructor. Each adds manly heft.
   The plot amounts to a mash-up of mythologies, the most notable involving expectations that a messiah figure will provide some form of salvation. 
    Early on, the House of Atreides — one of many — has been assigned custodianship of the planet Arrakis. Arrakis, we learn, is the source of the spice melange, essential to interplanetary travel, longevity and more.
  Previously, the planet was ruled by the Harkonnen, foul warriors who exploited Arrakis and its native population, the Fremens. A fierce desert-like people who know how to live with the planet's terrifyingly enormous sand worms, the Fremens add Middle Eastern flavor.
   Of course, it doesn’t take long for us to understand that the House of Atreides is under grave threat. Perhaps the woman Paul dreams of -- the Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) — will help save the day if Villeneuve gets to make the rest of the story. 
    Villeneuve's epic left me looking forward to more and eager to learn how much sway Dune still holds in the pop-cultural imagination. I know people, now quite grown, for whom Dune was a formative read of youth.
     That wouldn't be me. Perhaps that's why I watched Villeneuve's richly realized world with appreciation, even if I sometimes felt more like an impressed tourist than someone who had fully invested in this sci-fi saga.


No comments: