Dune ★★★★½

As much as Denis Villeneuve’s tantrum about WB dropping his $160 million baby on HBO Max without consulting him seemed like a first world problem at the time, he wasn’t wrong from an aesthetical point of view. “Dune” is the reason films exist, the medium at its highest aspiration. When motion pictures came around in the late 1800s, the goal was to transport viewers to new places and briefly distract them for their labors and worries in a society headed straight for the first of two catastrophic infernos. Whether they necessarily envisioned a desert planet inhabited by 400-meter sandworms is neither here nor there. Arrakis, a fully realized world visually and culturally, is the pinnacle of make-belief. I’m not saying by any means that Villeneuve is the first filmmaker to climb such lofty heights, but after a year and a half of long-awaited studio flagpoles getting the shaft and being pushed into an uncertain future, it’s especially heartening to accompany a director to a place where he got to fulfill a lifelong dream.

After David Lynch tried his hand at this universe and fell on his face back in the 80s, the material was long considered unfilmable. Of course, people also used to call Mount Everest unclimbable and the Moon unreachable, so in reality, that’s just one of those labels used to justify past failed attempts until someone like Peter Jackson comes along to rip it off. Villeneuve’s most instantly obvious success is that he was able to bring Frank Herbert’s book from the 60s to life with state-of-the-art technology that you could only find in an Isaac Asimov novel or Stanley Kubrick film in those days. It’s no coincidence that he tackled this only after “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049” earned him critical love. He didn’t want to touch something he considered sacred before trying his hand at certainly not lesser, but maybe not as personal material. The result is a film that is by far the surest bet so far this year to collect multiple Oscars in the technical categories. He has perfected the art of scope by emphasizing the visual potency of his images and populating them with characters who seem dwarfed by the powers of nature going to work around them. A hostile world in which every single drop of water is considered sacred is the logical culmination of that philosophy.

The book is a complex mosaic of political animosities and retaliation, involving the feuding Artreidis and Harkonnen families and the paranoid Emperor Shaddam IV, who not unlike the German Kaiser Wilhelm II several millennia earlier in this timeline, would rather risk an all-out war than concede even an iota of authority. Herbert’s characters for the most part operate via ruthless realpolitik, in which power is amassed by conquest and crushing rivals. Arrakis is the most treasured of colonies, home to the most sought-after resource in the universe; spice, a hallucinogenic drug required for interstellar space travel. How that works isn’t clarified here, but the exact science isn’t all that important. All people need to know is that is the stuff that dreams are made of. And as has been the case so often in the history of cinema, people are willing to kill for it. Villeneuve strips down those conflicts to its fundamentals, something that most notably results in relatively little screen time for Dave Bautisa’s murderous enforcer Raban and his uncle Baron Harkonnen, a far more sinister and less comically deranged entity as played by Stellan Skarsgard than his counterpart from the 80s. Instead, Villeneuve takes his time to introduce us to Paul, which results in a surprisingly extended stay on the Artreidis home world Kaladan, before he and his family take off to assume the stewardship on Arrakis. Timothee Chalamet is up to the task of turning Paul into a moody teenager, who is annoyed by the insistence of his mentors to keep training him non-stop, but later also credibly makes the transition into a hardened survivor in the worm-inhabited dunes of his new home. I could have done without some of his visions, which occasionally slam the brakes on story momentum, but it’s decidedly better than having a character’s face superimposed over the screen and reading off exposition from a teleprompter.

The film also takes time to acquaint us with its large ensemble of supporting players, practically all of whom are played by A-list actors, which helps a lot with both remembering their names and purposes. Jason Momoa especially makes a lot out of his scenes as sword master and gifted diplomat Duncan Idaho. When you are trying to make a good impression on a group of people who have a fearsome reputation, but you need as your allies, he’s the guy to send. I like that Josh Brolin has enough self-awareness to know that he just has that face that will always get him cast as the grumpy, no-nonsense hardass, who has no such time for such trivial frivolities as humor (“Smile Gurney”. “I am smiling”, as he grimly stares ahead). Javier Bardem, unexpectedly, ends up being the closest thing to comic relief here. His annoyance with the new wannabe white saviors who have just been placed in charge of his planet is so blatantly obvious that it leads to one or two amusing faux pas during his introduction to Duke Leto. Oscar Isaac is a strong presence as a conflicted, but ultimately devoted father whose son will have to carry the weight of multiple worlds on his shoulders someday. There is genuine affection in his assurance to Paul that no matter whether he is striving for leadership, his love for him comes from their bond as father and son, not his ambitions to rule one day. Leto is a benevolent dictator, who cares more for the lives of his workers than the wealth to be earned with the spice, as he proves in the most terrific scene in the film, an evacuation of a harvester as a gargantuan worm makes its approach.

I was enwrapped by the vision and ambition of this film, and it’s been a while since 2 ½ hours flew by this fast in a movie theater (due to some weird rescheduling issues, we were the only people in our showing, which thankfully eliminated distracting background chatter and popcorn crunching). I am astounded that one of the more common criticisms to come out of Venice was that viewers found it too sluggish. Hans Zimmer’s score is a mesmerizing hybrid of unusual instrument choices, including bagpipes to celebrate the arrival of House Atreidis on Arrakis, and powerful, primarily female choirs, hammering home the idea that the women are really the ones setting the tone in this universe. As soon as we meet Charlotte Rampling’s chilling incarnation of the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, it’s all too clear that the Bene Gesserit sisterhood is not especially concerned with emotions, but ruthless practicality. They have been meddling with bloodlines for eons to breed a physical and intellectual weapon of mass destruction, the Kwisatz Haderach (just one of many terms that sound like Herbert developed his jargon by arbitrarily putting Scrabble letters next to each other). Rebecca Fergusson as Lady Jessica is the closest thing to a secondary protagonist as the film has, as she gets to accompany her exiled son, whom her superiors in her sisterhood never wanted to exist in the first place, into an uncertain future. Well, it got a little bit more certain last week when Villeneuve shared the news that “Dune: Part 2” has been officially greenlit. Even if we have to wait two years, it’s reassuring that at least we won’t be left stranded in a literal desert.

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