Dune (2021)

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With the exception perhaps of director Denis Villeneuve’s previous sc-fi blockbuster, Blade Runner 2049, I have been feasting on the work of Zack Snyder, Marvel Studios and Star Wars, for my sci-fi, and so Villeneuve’s adaptation of (part of) Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune left me a little nonplussed after I saw it this week at the cinema. I guess also seeing the excellent No Time To Die the day before led me to have a rather muted reaction.

Where I went into the cinema worried as hell that Blade Runner 2049 was going to be rubbish and came out thinking it was a bloody marvelous follow up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, I went in to see Dune with no such love for David Lynch’s 1984 film and came out thinking more about that version than the one I had just seen.  

I held off from writing this post until I had time to think about why the only thing that really initially impressed me about Villeneuve’s Dune was the score. On the walk home from the cinema I was treated to an amazing sunset over Loughborough lighting up the skies with orange, deep blues, reds and yellow tones and it made me think that what was missing from Dune was spectacle. But, that didn’t really make sense, since there’s hardly a moment of Dune that doesn’t include visual effects, some of them strikingly good.

So, was it how the story was treated? Was it too close to Lynch’s 1984 adaptation? I have watched Lynch’s film numerous times and while it is full of flaws it did a reasonable job of getting this ‘unfilmable’ book onto the big screen. They said the same thing about The Lord of the Rings, which had the same kind of sudden cut off in ‘part 1’ as we got in Villeneuve’s Dune, and we know now that we have all the filmmaking tools we need to turn imagination into a believable worlds full of strange monsters and landscapes. Lynch’s version, despite a lack of such tools, certainly didn’t lack spectacle. It contains some of the most bizarre things ever seen in a sci-fi film. So is Villeneuve’s version pale in comparison?

In a way, yes. But that’s the whole point I think. Villeneuve and his team have done such a good job of grounding all the VFX elements into a coherent reality that it’s taken me a few days to realize why I left the cinema with an empty feeling.

Villeneuve has made a film of Dune that looks as if he somehow went on location to the planet Arrakis and filmed it for real. Where the DC, Marvel and Star Wars films have that sense of hyperreal drama with bright comic book visuals and unrealistic lighting, Villeneuve tones all the visual elements I’m accustomed to down from 11 to 5, concentrates on the characters point of view and grounds Dune in a sandy, windy, gritty, smoky reality. Even the most ludicrously odd-looking ornithopters look totally able to fly thanks to the use of real helicopter footage for their take-offs and landing.

The cinema’s silver screen becomes a huge window onto a planet familiar to me from the book and previous film, and what is most important is the story. The fact that I know the story off by heart is why the film felt a bit ‘meh’ to me.

Another factor that stopped me connecting with this film in the way I expected (I’ve been gagging to see this film since it was announced that it would be Villeneuve’s next project after Blade Runner 2049) was the screen I watched it on.

The sound system was great but the screen was the smallest at the cinema and had a few creases on the side and was about a third smaller than usual. So hardly a good size to see the sweeping sand dunes and enjoy the Harkonnen’s night attack on the planet. I get the feeling that I will enjoy it more second time around on my OLED TV at home which isn’t creased and doesn’t have a hundred empty seats between it and me (there were only two other people in the screening with me and they bizarrely sat right at the front!).

As briefly mentioned, the initial saving grace was Hans Zimmer’s music. The one unfamiliar thing in the movie for me. Thankfully the cinema sound was set at a reasonable rather than eardrum-ripping volume and so the opportunity to revel in the sound design, the music and how it was used to support the drama was exceptional.

Some might say that there is too much of Zimmer’s score in this film. I don’t think there’s ever a scene where it is silenced. But I thought it was great and not as jarring as his work with Benjamin Wallfisch on Blade Runner 2049. Dune’s score is unfamiliar and otherworldly. Only now and again did something sound familiar – when the Fremen theme was used it reminded me a little of the Amazonian vocal overlays accompanying Wonder Woman’s big action sequences in Snyder’s Justice League. Apart from that, Dune’s score feels unique and emotive of future worlds with millennia of cultural development so different from Earth (apart from the bagpipes).

Another saving grace on my first viewing was the cast. Unlike Lynch’s version, the cast is brilliant and includes Rebecca Furguson, a blue-eyed Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa and Javier Bardem. Sure, I have my reservations about emo boy Timothée Chalamet (Lady Bird) as Paul Atreides, but I assume he was portraying the starting point of his hero’s journey by looking like he didn’t really belong, and that he will kick ass both as a character and an actor in the next film.

In conclusion, despite my initial disappointment, I am sure this film will benefit from rewatching at home and likely as part of a double-bill with Dune part two, whenever that comes out. I’m also sure, along with No Time To Die, that it is one of the best films I have seen this year and I am glad I saw it on the big screen, even though it wasn’t as big as I would’ve liked. 

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