If history is to be trusted, it was easier to bend space and time than to film Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic, an epic and distant tale of rival space dynasties. , secret fraternities and new age prophets who cling to – and critics – the classic hero tale of the genre.
Many have tried and perished in the sandstorm. Mad-eyed Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky had grand designs – a 14-hour version he hoped to star with Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles – that turned out to be far too ambitious to be made. Ridley Scott played with the idea before giving up and moving on.
David Lynch – a filmmaker in tune with Herbert’s psychic visions – hit the screen with a memorable and grotesque piece of pop art in 1984, only to see it reduced to the point of being almost incoherent.
The latest filmmaker to get his hands dirty, Canadian writer-director Denis Villeneuve, seems like a bit of an odd choice in comparison. He’s the kind of filmmaker dubiously portrayed as a “visionary” by studios, even during his recent forays into science fiction – Arrival (2016); The deeply useless Blade Runner 2049 (2017) seems better suited for showing off flat-screen TVs in designer apartments than for evoking any kind of mystical future.
So it’s a pleasant surprise to announce that his take on Dune, which finally hits theaters this week, is a gripping, well-edited adaptation that showcases his potential as a sci-fi maker – not exactly. enough to be called a visionary. work, but an ambitious and largely satisfying space opera that rises like an oasis against the desert of today’s Hollywood superhero cinema.
Boosted by Hans Zimmer’s sound score – with its metronomic thud and throaty alien chants – the film is polished and imposing, full of huge wide shots that eclipse the screen, of jagged spaceships that seem to emerge from oil paintings. misty oil, and an admirable dedication to creating great serious cinematic myths.
But Dune’s best effect might be her cast, especially her young lead roles, baby-faced androgynous Timothée Chalamet and galaxy-eyed princess Zendaya – two children that are enough to suggest a brighter cosmic future, or at least warmer.
Chalamet is Paul, a teenage heir to the noble house Atreides, a goth mall Glowerpuss who divides his time between learning the mind tricks of his witch mother, Lady Jessica (a moving Rebecca Ferguson), and carrying over from family business policy with dad, house owner and resident dreamboat, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac).
It’s the far distant future – not to mention swords, medieval faux trims, and bagpipes – and the Galactic Emperor has sent House Atreides to take custody of Arrakis, the desert planet rich in spices essential to space travel.
The date does not go well with the bitter rival of the Atreids, House Harkonnen, a planet of sinister creeps that bathe in black mud, keep giant spiders as pets and whose leader, Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård), seems inspired by the performance of Marlon Brando. in Apocalypse Now (1979).
Exploited for its natural resources, Arrakis – also known as Dune – is inhabited by the indigenous Fremen, a group of blue-eyed nomads who include Zendaya’s Chani, the desert warrior who appears in Paul’s dreams.
These premonitions also suggest that Paul might be some sort of space messiah; much to the concern of Lady Jessica’s clan, the Bene Gesserit, an obscure, distaffed order of psychic witches who have tried to summon a chosen one – a girl – to fill space and time, past and future.
“So much wasted potential for a man,” hisses the Reverend Mother of the Order, played by Charlotte Rampling in a beautiful echo of her all-female cult queen in John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974).
No wonder Paul looks so gloomy, moping like a post-punk vagabond above a sea of fog.
That’s certainly a lot to swallow for the uninitiated: a fact that undid the truncated version of Lynch, in which poor Virginia Madsen (as Imperial Princess Irulan, heiress of the galaxy) had to hand out reels of exhibition on strange and spectral opening moments.
Villeneuve has the relative luxury of two chapters – beware, this is only the first part – and he uses it to his advantage, allowing the narrative to breathe against the scope of the images.
Filming partially on location in Jordan, Abu Dhabi and Norway, Villeneuve, Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser (Rogue One) and set designer Patrice Vermette (Sicario; Arrival) give the story a sense of scale and detail lived, by welding the large screen the immensity of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to the shredded grain of the first Star Wars (1977), a film whose desert sequences were inspired by the writing of Herbert.
Views are enhanced by all the special effects a reported $ 165million budget can buy: battle holo-shields that twinkle and glow, insect-like ornithopters plunge into sandstorms, and titanic spaceships which appear to have teleported straight from the pulp paperback covers of the 60s and 70s.
For science fiction freaks, it’s hard to resist.
But the flashy effects are also offset by less-expected, human-sized attention to detail: Jason Momoa’s easy charm as a movie star as Duncan Idaho, a master swordsman Paul adores; the way the great Stephen McKinley Henderson, as human computer Thufir Hawat, scrolls a parasol during a military inspection; or drinks distilled from sweat, tears, and saliva – presumably not available in the Dune combo at the Chocolate Bar, unless you endure the wrath of a disgruntled teenage employee.
What Villeneuve and his co-writers Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and Eric Roth (A Star Is Born) will do with Dune’s overall narrative – with its messianic leader and the impending holy war – is more difficult to assess, given the manifestly unfinished nature of their history.
At least initially, Paul is a character in conflict with his fate – as heir to a patriarchy that ravages an ecosystem; as a potential savior of a people – and Chalamet plays him with a suitably puckered forehead.
Villeneuve also tweaked Herbert’s novel to open the film not to Paul’s tale of the Imperial Princess, but to Chani – effectively framing events through the eyes of the Fremen.
“Who will be our next oppressors? She wonders in the first minutes of the film.
The arrival of the Atreids in Arrakis gives the distinct impression of high-tech imperialists landing to plunder a desert nation.
Elements drawn from Arab culture and Eastern mysticism are found throughout Herbert’s work, which intertwines with themes of colonialism, ecological neglect and the corruption of power, although this mixture of cultures – a staple sci-fi device – adapts less well to the present moment, when such creative license, however nuanced, is viewed with suspicion.
The new Dune has drawn clever criticism for flattening the nuances of Herbert’s text, downplaying the anchor of the source material in Middle Eastern culture, even though Hans Zimmer’s reliance on Arabic vocal tones – often used to emphasize a moving moment of pause for the protagonists – draws on a Western audience’s notion of “mystery” for dramatic shorthand.
All of this might have been less noticeable if Villeneuve had been more sensitive to the psychic power of images the way Lynch, and certainly Jodorowsky, understood it – the kind of film that could transcend a real-world analogue and transport an audience to something really strange. or foreigner.
His Dune is too polite and cautious to risk making a mistake – which makes sense, given the history of this project, but also means that there is nothing here ready to woo the ridiculous, and by extension, the genius. (If we can’t have space pugs and slugs, couldn’t we at least have asked Timothée Chalamet to worm instead of walking on the sand?)
But it captures more than attention, and sometimes even inspires awe. If this is the start of a resurgence of an ambitious and lyrical space fantasy, then go for it.
Dune is in theaters from December 2.