Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 22, 2021 10:02 pm 
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Villeneuve's 'Dune' is good, but a bit overwhelmed by its source

Dennis Villeneuve revived Blade Runner in his own expanded version, which was very well received. (I had plenty of time for it, and unlike the Ridley Scott original, it required a lot of that commodity.) Now he does something even more important, because for fans of the Frank Herbert epic Dune the world's most popular science fiction novel, the ultimate sci-fi fan book, there was no completed film version but David Lynch's botched one. Those who know say this time Villeneuve has done it right. Or at least some of them do.

Villeneuve has made a film for fans and readers of the book: he has said so, expressing the hope that what he has done will please them. It appears to have generally also pleased the critics, with some strong dissenters. Beside Richard Brody, who in the digital back pages of The New Yorker finds the new film too slavish to plotline and specifics and "sanded to dullness," there is Michael Sragow, who unfortunately for him is a huge fan of Jodorowsky's never-completed Dune, (as its conception is seen in a documentary) and who sees Villeneuve's version as "a literalist compression of the book" and "vast and ponderous would-be epic."

I'd say Villeneuve may please the most dedicated fans of the books, but it's so loyal to those, it seems incomprehensible to non-fans in many particular details. And similarly it's a bit lacking in dash and originality, the sense of being the true work of an auteur who has made the source utterly his own and dared to branch out freely.

This is the paradox: Villeneuve's Dune is specific enough to distinguish itself quite clearly at almost every point from the numerous other sci-fi epics it resembles. But it would be nice it it had been truly unique and strange in style and conception as a film as well. I'm thinking of the still photos and voice-over of Chris Marker's magical and memorable La Jetée . If only there were something like that.

Another paradox is that while the landscapes both architectural and natural are impressive and distinctive, it's unfortunately true as Richard Brody rather cruelly says that at times despite its grand scale Dune occasionally seems a bit "cheesy" around the edges, like a CGI production waiting for its details, its vast buildings or massive crowds, to be "digitally filled in." I thought that, even as I was being impressed by the odd-looking hills and unusual buildings. And yet somehow the people who stumble around in the sand or engage in colloquy in English, in Chakobsa, or in special sign language, good as the cast is, seem less wonderful or memorable than the environment they're in.

This is with the notable exception of Timothée Chalamet, whose making of a hero-messiah from a cherished princeling is a coming of age story that holds center stage here and is a role this actor seems made to play. Chalamet's slim, ephebe frame , ivory skin and impeccable bone structure are present in every scene in this his second and more successful appearance as a princeling; the first was as prince Hal in David Michôd's rather lackluster The King. The impressive and ambitious Dune, if it meets with success with the public, is poised to climax Chalamet's rapid rise to fame and leading man status and make him a megastar. It's a trajectory that was sent on its way with Lady Bird and Little Women but most of all with Call Me by Your Name, where he really made love to the screen, as well as to Armie Hammer and a ripe peach, and showed his skill at the keyboard and with foreign languages. Here, he adds martial arts to his portfolio.

I'm still a little overwhelmed and baffled by Villeneuve's Dune, which is so authentic it's full of stuff that makes no sense to me. What is "the voice"? Why do people go blurry and vibrate every so often? What is this world, this oceanic planet Caladan Paul Atreides (Timothée) and his father Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and mother Lady Jessica (the pleasingly recessive Rebecca Fergusson) live on? What is this other world of the desert planet Arrakis they mine for its "spice"? I kept waiting for the giant miles-long sand worms I'd heard about to appear and never quite saw one. They were there; I just didn't know what to look for. I was impressed by the unusual (if identifiably brutalist) architecture encountered everywhere, the pleasing if sub-Lawrence of Arabia-grade dunes.

Indeed one just needs to prep for a story in which the author packed so much material. The Wikipedia article mentions among "themes and influences" "Middle-Eastern and Islamic references, Environmentalism and ecology, Declining empires, Gender dynamics, Heroism," and "Zen and religion." The Middle-Eastern and Islamic material at times was quite evident, but one could see much was beneath the surface.

There are some key fights, sometimes fought in a most unorthodox manner: what about those men in matching uniforms who turn cartwheels between fisticuffs? It all requires the kind of patient explanation you get in the moments leading up to a Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast - or a careful review by watching the movie again on HBO Max. I see now the good sense of my friend who read Dune weeks ahead of the film's release. But I feel that whether Herbert's text would appeal to me or not, no amount of study will make Villeneuve's - nonetheless impressive and watchable - version truly sing for me.

Watching this in the same IMAX auditorium and the same seat where I saw No Time to Die two weeks ago, I had a different, rather less pleasant experience, even though this is arguably the better movie. To start with, there were more people in the audience - so many that it made me nervous and worried about mask-wearing and air, a sensitivity increased by the oxygen tubes worn on Arrakis by our heroes, so I continually felt about to run out of air or breathe poison myself. At the same time even more than the last I felt overwhelmed by a score by the same ubiquitous blockbuster composer, Hans Zimmer, which this time seemed less to thread together explosions as in the Bond picture and simply to be its own explosion overwhelming everything, including the dialogue, which at times I couldn't understand, at least when it didn't have subtitles. Wish I could have seen this in Paris, where the audience is more restrained and polite, doesn't walk back in front of you kicking your legs and chomp on popcorn (not that the chomping was audible over Zimmer's score). But this is a film to see in IMAX, or in the biggest best cinema you can find.

The best part of Villeneuve's Dune is the cliff-hanger finale, when you see Paul commit to staying on the desert planet to manage it. It's an exciting leap Paul is taking, a more-than-hint of his destiny beginning to come true in a big way, and it's something you feel, and a promise of more to come. Here, Villeneuve had me.

Dune, 155 mins., debuted at Venice out of competition Sept. 3, 2021, also showing in Deauville, Toronto, Bogota, New York film festivals, Mill Valley, Chicago and Sydney. It opened in US theaters ad on HBO Max Fri., Oct. 22, 2021. Current Metacritic rating: 75%.

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