Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The sometimes flawed Dune is largely a dazzling cosmic affair

The time has come for the spice to flow. Yes, director Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 take on Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (the first of a supposed two-part film adaptation) has finally arrived in theaters. Dune arrives onto the silver screen with a bevy of expectations to deliver as both an adaptation of its source material and as something different in the sci-fi blockbuster landscape. All of that ambition remains consistently impressive, but some aspects of that execution, unfortunately, leave something to be desired. This isn’t a result of overblown expectations specific to this one feature. On the contrary, Dune’s faults will be mighty familiar to anyone who has encountered other projects attempting to adapt one book over multiple films.

Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is the Duke of House Atreides, a powerful empire put in charge of controlling the planet Arrakis and its crucial supply of Spice. That element is seen as a hallucinogenic by the denizens of Arrakis, but for decades, powerful planets have exploited the Spice for financial gain. Though Paul’s dad (Oscar Isaac) hopes to create a more peaceful relationship between all the parties who want the Spice, evil forces have alternative plans. The Baron (Stellan Skarsgard) used to be the one who reaped the financial benefits of the Spice and he wants revenge on Atreides for taking away his cash cow. 

Paul and his loved ones are now the primary targets of a massive revenge scheme. At the same time, Paul is seeing visions that involve the denizens of Arakkis, and in particular, some girl named Chani (Zendaya). This and other aspects of his character are leading some to murmur that he may be some kind of Messiah figure. Can this Duke live up to those ideals…or even just survive the vicious plot for vengeance that seeks to slit the throats of everyone in the House Atreides?

The greatest attribute of Dune is how it opts to embrace its source material without a trace of winking postmodernism. Not only does this mean weirder parts of Dune lore come fully intact to the screen, but also means Villeneuve is confident enough to implement intentional anachronisms into this world. Futuristic heralds still read important information from scrolls like it’s the days of King Arthur, an important character murmurs about the dangers of lying to a witch, and the minimal lighting in a nighttime conversation between Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Rampling’s character evokes the ambiance of a period drama. Though set in a distant galaxy far into the future, it’s fun to see Dune echoes Earth’s past without feeling the need to undercut the disparity with a forced gag. 

That quality goes hand-in-hand with how Dune is also unabashedly a spectacle film, one that totally delivers on the glorious production design and sound work. Who needs D-Box seats or any equivalent when Dune's soundtrack constantly makes your seat rumble all on its own? You feel like you're on Arrakis with the characters while the tactile nature of the sets and costumes make otherworldly items feel like something you could reach out and grab. Hans Zimmer's score accentuates the grandeur of the proceedings with a collection of compositions heavy on choral chants and deep rumbling bass drums. There's almost a spiritual quality to his music as if evoking the divine to accentuate the importance of Dune.

The weighty nature of the score combined with the seriousness of Villeneuve's direction, though, do run up against some of the more ridiculous aspects of Dune and not quite in a fun way. For instance, no matter how many times an actor of Oscar Isaac's caliber says it, the phrase "desert power" never stops sounding like a catchphrase from a Captain Planet knock-off. More troubling is that this momentous aesthetic makes the narrative hiccups, such as characters seemingly existing only to set up details for a sequel, harder to swallow. That same approach similarly makes the wrinkles in its sociopolitical commentary (like some shortcomings in the depiction of Arakkis's natives, known as the Fremen) more difficult to sand over. 

Even if its weightier underpinnings don't quite hit a bullseye, Dune remained entertaining for me simply through the combination of glorious eye candy and everyone involved committing so fiercely to science-fiction mayhem. Rather than coming off as people reacting to tennis balls and green screen on set, the stacked cast of actors in Dune are so invested in this strange world that it made a total Dune novice like myself raring to go to explore more of Arrakis. Speaking of the cast, special shout-outs to Jason Momoa for nailing Fun Uncle vibes as Duncan Idaho while Sharon Duncan-Brewster is a compelling performer as Dr. Liet-Kynes, plus, she gets the best cheer-worthy moment of the entire film.

Throughout the first two acts of Dune, there was always some performance, a new gorgeous vista, or nifty costume to make me go "oooo, shiny!" Those visual details especially pop right off the screen. As anyone whose seen Villeneuve's other works, especially his sci-fi films Arrival and Blade Runner, can attest, the man knows his way around compelling visuals, and that trait is put to great use here. Villeneuve's theatrical sense of timing can make even the most seemingly ludicrous set piece, like a tiny spaceship stalking Paul, something that puts you on the edge of your seat. The characters in Dune aren't especially nuanced or deep people, but that's not a problem when there's so much splendor and spectacle unfolding on the screen. I can totally get lost in the production design and not the humans inhabiting it.

Unfortunately, when the third act strips down the scope to be just about two of our lead characters stranded in the desert, that's when the problems with the characters become not fatal but more apparent. With more sparse visual surroundings and characterization taking center stage, Dune finds itself stumbling. It doesn't help that this section of the story and the entire film gets capped off with an awkward cliffhanger destined to frustrate general moviegoers. Like so many adaptations of one book carried out over multiple movies, this first half of Dune can't quite strike the perfect balance between being a satisfying standalone experience and a piece of a larger story. If the Lord of the Rings movies could pull that off, surely Dune could too!

I wish Dune could've made what was on the page as compelling as the elements that dominate the screen, but thankfully, there's an avalanche of eye candy here to make Dune well worth a trip to your local IMAX, XD, or whatever larger screen you have near you. It isn't a perfect film or adaptation of its source material, but Dune is just the kind of bold swing you can't help but be enthralled by. Oh, and it also has gigantic sand worms, more movies should feature those.

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