Thrums of the Desert
Dune lays the sci-fi funsies on thick; just don't think too hard about it
[I’ve done it! I’ve seen all the Oscar Best Picture nominees! Here are links to reviews of Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Licorice Pizza, West Side Story, Nightmare Alley, CODA, King Richard, Belfast, and The Power of the Dog — and come to alicublog on Sunday when I predict that night’s winners!]
I left Dune for last among the Oscar crop because I hate this kind of fantasy thing, whether it’s sword-and-sandal or sword-and-spaceship. But I can always be swayed by quality, as I was with Black Panther, and what Dune lacks in Panther’s funny-book verve it makes up for in audacity and sheer chops. Dune has operatic scale and sweep — though, alas, no opera.
In Dune’s distant future-world, part sci-fi gee-whiz-scape and wholly medieval, Paul is the scion of Atreides, one of the great Houses of the Empire; his father is the noble Duke Leto, his mother some sort of holy concubine in some sort of mystical cult that lives and breeds and waits upon a messiah called — I forget; El Dorado? Sloppy Joe’s? All right, Kwisatz Haderach, I knew it all the time. You caught on, didn’t you?
The Emperor sends Atreides and its legions to the dangerous desert planet Arrakis, where The Spice, a hallucinogenic substance that also enables interstellar travel, is mined. House Harkonnen has been mining it for 80 years under imperial contract and grown “obscenely wealthy,” one of the Atreides officers informs us, but that’s because its Duke is a greedy scumbag, and also a fleshly, floating creep as befits the Obvious Villain of the piece, who exploits the native Fremen and also skims profits, whereas the Duke of Atreides wants to honor its commitment to the Emperor and treat justly with the Fremen, as he tells haughty Stilgar, one of their tribal leaders: “You will never be hunted while I govern here” — a kinder, gentler imperialist. “That is very honorable,” says Stilgar blankly.
Spoiler warning: Harkonnen has not given up on his fief, which is bad news for Atreides, but! The boy Paul has, ta-da, Special Powers, revealed first in prophetic dreams, then in a trial by pain with the Head Concubine Mystic In Charge, then in several semi-Neo-like when-all-about-are-losing-theirs feats of derring-do. (In my favorite, he stalks and kills a robot bug assassin; he also stares down a giant sandworm.) So when the shit hits the fan, Paul winds up winning a place among the Fremen, and seems bound for anti-imperial adventure. Stay tuned for Part II!
As a grown-up, I cannot possibly take any of this seriously. There are just no really interesting people in it. I love Timothée Chalamet as Paul, appropriately callow and visionary at the same time, and leading-man handsome, but one could hardly consider him a person. Stilgar is worth picking out in a room, but only because Javier Bardem figured out that surly bandit charm would make him stick out among the stiffs. The other actors flash their skill and sometimes summon enough to make an impression, like Bardem and Stellan Skarsgård, who squeezes some extra juice out of the gross Baron Harkonnen. But everyone knows the deal: People came for the grandeur, and to have enough of that you apparently have to stint on the characters. Even Lawrence of Arabia, a superior and far less overdetermined big-picture picture, only has room for one great headcase of a character. (Think how little impression Alec Guinness makes in that picture! And playing an Arab!)
But the grandeur in Dune is holy-wow grand: Giant flying fortresses, undulating deserts, massive sandworms with mouths like floral lampreys, dragonfly copters. It’s hard to resist the childish glee such things bestir. Better still, Denis Villeneuve actually juggles these mammoth set pieces beautifully, and uses them in striking ways — for instance, when (spoiler) Duke Leto is betrayed and drawn out, he’s shown dwarfed by the giant stone walls and steps of his desert compound. Villeneuve also has great taste, shot selection and editing rhythm; it’s a fast two and a half hours.
But, like I said, no opera: no arias, no great men or women, and no passion that an adult can believe in. (When Paul’s dreams start to ooze philosophy — “the mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve but a reality to experience… We must move with the flow of the process…” — one politely averts one’s attention until the treks and chases can re-commence.) But that’s not to say there isn’t music: Hans Zimmer gives us a constant stream of organic, mechanical, and synthetic sounds, including jungle drums, heavy metal, howls, chants, grinds, and shrieks, and every so often symphonic blurts of melody. It sounds ludicrous but it really suits the bombastic-heroic style of the film. Every craft element is magnificent, but Greig Fraser’s cinematography is a real showcase, equally acing clammy palace gloom, golden desert light, and battlefield firefight even as the CGI effects whiz through. It made me wish I’d seen it in a theater and still took drugs.