' ' Cinema Romantico: Dune

Monday, November 08, 2021


Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” is massive. It is so massive that it begins with a disclaimer, in a manner of speaking, that this is merely Part One, a 155 minute long, $165 million prologue. Indeed, the movie’s last line is a character proclaiming “this is only the beginning”, which made me laugh out loud, truly the funniest moment in the whole movie. That’s not a bad thing. The last line of “Kill Bill Vol. 1” made me laugh out loud too. Maybe I’m ok with the cliffhangers of “Kill Bill” and “Dune” because they are in service of a larger story that we ultimately know will fit together rather than cliffhangers as subterfuge meant to extend mere content into infinity, or maybe the fact that Dune Part 2 had not even been given the go-ahead when Villeneuve declared this Part 1 is the kind of Cimino-ish brass balls of Old (New) Hollywood I totally dig. Really, though, I give “Dune’s” cliffhanger a pass because of just how deftly Villeneuve builds to a moment that made me care. There is a deliberate vibe to this “Dune” that, despite the jaw-dropping spectacle surrounding it, can be distancing, making you wonder if this movie that concludes in the desert will just sort of reveal itself as a mirage. But a movie that doesn’t really pay off, since it can’t by design, also does pay off, strange as that might sound, with a long, winding arc that only starts coming into view by about minute 140.

Frank Herbert’s book, on which “Dune” is based, is massive too. It is so massive that many reviews of Villeneuve’s adaptation spend paragraph after paragraph explaining the book, who is who and what is what and why it’s all like this, before segueing into comments on David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation, what it got wrong and what it got right and how it compares to this “Dune” for good and for bad, and why the book has so long thought to be quote-unquote unfilmable. Villeneuve, though, leans into the enormity of the challenge by eschewing clever delivery devices for the exposition to instead just sort of have his characters stand around and say it. That might sound like a negative, but I mean it as a positive, with Villeneuve casting the kind of vocally muscular actors (Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa) who can make lines about the various noble houses and diatribes on the precious substance spice and declarations of aspirant desert power, sound convincing. Honestly, I have no idea what they were even going on about half the time and I didn’t really care. Though the movie takes place in 10191, the reliance on ancient weaponry underlines how much of this feels less like sci-fi than a sword and sandals epic, with characters standing before spectacular vistas and in enormous rooms to hash things out, bombastic talkiness a la “The Ten Commandments.”

At its core, and without getting too hung up on the Brobdingnagian language, the story is fairly simple: Leto (Isaac), Duke of the House of Atreides, agrees to take control of Arrakis, the desert planet harboring so much special spice, only to be double-crossed by the villainous Baron, an as ever unsmiling Stellan Skarsgård sort of cosplaying Pizza the Hutt if Pizza the Hutt had Sebastian Shaw’s helmetless Darth Vader head, who cuts a deal with the Emperor to wipe Leto’s House out and kill his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), preventing the potential Messiah from living out his potential Messianic destiny. Villeneuve eschews whatever commentary on fascism might be embedded in the material here to craft his own kind of space opera, forgoing the swashbuckling, B movie appeal of “Star Wars” for something closer to the dread-filled tension of his own “Sicario.” The small winged vessels on Arrakis reminiscent of dragonflies reduces humans in the desert to something like insects in the human world while the sequence of rescuing spice miners ahead of a giant sandworm burrowing toward mines great suspense from omniscient aerial shots making it seem as if we are counting down the approach of a pulverizing thunderstorm. And it speaks to how, for all the palace intrigue, bit by bit “Dune” gives way to nothing more than a coming of age story filtered through a chase movie as Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Ferguson), must flee through the desert, trying to stay ahead of the bad guys, while the young man’s purpose comes into focus.

Chalamet is not channeling any kind of traditional action hero so much as the brooding detachment of Natalie Portman in “Mars Attacks!” Through this prism, the massive sets do not simply serve themselves but emphasize just how much Paul has to shoulder and how he does not always come across like someone interested in it, “sullen and superior,” to quote the Stewart O’Nan book I just happen to be reading in talking about the prevailing mood of teenagers, “tending some secret drama.” It’s an unlikely slow burn performance, one that is not necessarily off-putting but not exactly engaging yet setting you up for the eventual turn. Out there in the desert, the reoccurring mentions of its power crystallize, Paul’s elliptical visions of the Fremen, desert dwellers of Arrakis, embedded throughout beginning to make sense, both to him and to us as Chalamet lets a fire into his eyes and his aloofness metamorphose into understanding. I did not even need to grasp the energy shields surrounding characters to know that when it is suddenly not there during Paul’s climactic battle, he has emerged from his shell. And just like that, I felt my shields coming down too, yearning for Part 2. Unless, of course, Part 2 is stretched into Parts 3 and 4 and 5, etc.; then I might have to reevaluate. 

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