Adapted Screenplay (Spaihts/Villeneuve/Roth)
Film Editing (Joe Walker)
Cinematographer (Gregg Fraser)
Visual Effects (Lambert/Myles/Connor/Nefzer)
Production Design (Patrice Vermette/Zsuzsanna Sipos)
Costume Design (Jacqueline West/Bob Morgan)
Makeup and Hairstyling (Mowat/Larson/Von Bahr)
Original Score (Hans Zimmer)
Dune is the next Star Wars!
The parallels are striking. It’s about humans at some distant future and on planets not our own. And yet, the themes revolve around the same problems of political consolidation, personal freedom, religions, and, ultimately, the meaning of life. Where the Star Wars trilogy of trilogies treated all that with a certain lightheartedness, Dune gets right to the point, and doesn’t let up in the intensity. Director and screenplay co-writer Denis Villeneuve wrote that he wanted to create an ‘adult Star Wars’ and he has succeeded admirably.
Even though I was a science fiction fan as a teenager, I have to admit that I never read the Frank Herbert book that is this story. Nor have I seen the 1984 David Lynch movie that has been so widely panned by both the sci-fi community and the critics. Nor did I ever watch the 2000 three-part TV miniseries from John Harrison, which, I understand, was reviewed a bit better than the earlier movie, but still not really accepted by true Herbert fans.
This year’s Dune is much better received and appears to be on track to become the next big sci-fi juggernaut. Although this is only ‘Part One’ – and only covers the first half or so of the book – ‘Part Two’ was green-lighted by the studio just two days after the movie’s first weekend and is now scheduled for release in October, 2023. In just the four months since its release last October, it has already gone into the black by a couple hundred million dollars. And that is in spite of Covid and the havoc it created for theaters and the movie industry.
Dune received ten Oscar nominations. One of them was for Best Picture and we’ll talk about that towards the end. Another was for the adapted screenplay. The writing is well done and that isn’t surprising given that the writers include Eric Roth who won an Oscar for Forrest Gump and was nominated for four other screenplays. Another writer, Jon Spaihts, wrote the scripts for important films like Doctor Strange and Passengers. Villeneuve, who was also a co-writer, has wanted to do this film for decades and previously directed two very important movies, Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival as science fiction ‘practice’ films to help develop his style (Both of those films were excellent examples of the genre!).
And so now we have this magnum opus Dune. An epic story encompassing most of the big themes that science fiction can possibly cover. And yet, this film is not nearly as confusing as something like last year’s Tenet. The story carries you all the way through it’s two and a half hours. And the characters are compelling, if not always original. There’s an emperor, of course, who seems to rule the universe. But there are so many interesting cultures inhabiting that universe. Seemingly, they are all derivatives of different earthly traditions. The main characters, Paul Atreides (Tomothee Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) seem to come from a Greek tradition. Another influence populates the imagery with references to bulls and seems to extend a Minoan influence. Yet another culture is derived from Japanese Samurai traditions. There is an obese person who mirrors an image from Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, or could easily be a counterpart to Star Wars’ Jabba the Hut. The references abound, and yet, they don’t overwhelm – they seem to make what might, otherwise, be a rather complex plot a little more grounded. (You have to continually remember that this film takes place approximately 22,000 years in the future (as measured by one person), so things aren’t supposed to be much like current day earth.)
And yet, this isn’t really an actor’s movie. Chalamet does a great job portraying a fifteen-year-old who is suddenly in charge of a planet. And Rebecca Ferguson, who is only twelve years older than Chalamet, is convincing as his mother who is also a member of an ancient female sect that has powers similar to those of the Jedi knights in Star Wars. (Yes, Zendaya (as Chani), does appear a couple of times, but her role doesn’t really blossom until Part II – the closing line of the movie is her saying “This is only the beginning”.)
So, yes, this movie is a setup! And its main purpose is to get you interested in a story that is going to go on for at least one more movie, and, as I understand it, with possibilities for multiple extensions after that. Now I can understand that you might not want to engage in something that is simply a come-on, but Dune (Part One) is really worth it in its own right. The story ends on a satisfactory note while setting up the anticipations for the future sequels.
Dune is this year’s movie that illustrates technical movie-making at its best. Although I did not watch it in the intended IMAX format (I was at home with my own modest screen and sound system), I still felt, viscerally, how these fabulous technicians combined to produce an amazing sensory delight. Dune is this year’s top ‘below-the-line’ movie.
The film received 10 Oscar nominations (behind only The Power of the Dog with 12). But what makes Dune somewhat unique is that it received nominations in all below-the-line (i.e. ‘technical’) categories, except Original Song (which in my opinion is a nonsense category anyway). So what the Academy is saying is that this movie excels in every single technical aspect that makes for a good film. And whether you watch this film in its intended setting (an IMAX theater) or on a significant home theater system, you will see and hear why.
The technical team on this movie is a cast of all-stars. In the eight technical categories, nineteen different people are explicitly nominated, and, of course, they are representing a vastly bigger crew. Between them, these nineteen people have received 51 other nominations and 5 prior Oscars (The Original Score for The Lion King (1994) , Sound for Mad Max: Fury Road and The Last Mohicans, and Visual Effects for First Man and Blade Runner 2049.)
This team is fully seasoned and more than competent. Hans Zimmer, composer, spent a week in the Utah desert trying to determine what it sounds like and then came back and created brand new instruments to match the movie’s imagery. The Sound team put together sounds from the various cultures referenced and then managed ways to electronically modify them. The design team not only located places in Jordan, Abu Dhabi, and Norway to reflect the different planetary settings, but they also populated each set with intriguing details. The Makeup, Hairstyling and Costume teams came up with designs that fit with each of the cultures they were trying to portray and then super-modernized the effect. Among many things, the Visual Effects team spent a year perfecting the computer graphic imagery (CGI) to create the iconic sandworms, including getting sand to move in waves as if it were water. Many of the team members also worked on Villenueve’s earlier science fiction movies, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 and many of them consider the earlier films as just practice sessions for Dune.
The result of their work is this year’s sight and sound spectacle. If you can’t watch it in an IMAX theater, then watch it on the largest screen you can and crank up the volume on the speakers to as loud as you and your neighbors can stand. This is a movie to immerse yourself in.
And it was nominated for Best Picture. I’m guessing it does very well in the technical categories, but I doubt it will take the top Oscar, mostly because it is a science fiction film, and, let’s be honest, sci-fi does not generally go well with the ‘serious’ community. While the viewing public rated this movie second out of this year’s 28 (nonspecialized) Oscar-nominated films (just behind Spider-Man: No Way Home), the critics placed it smack dab in the middle. Manohla Dhargis (New York Times) gave it a ‘NYT Critics Pick’, but still writes “But the movie’s spectacular scale combined with Herbert’s complex myth making also creates a not entirely productive tension between stasis and movement.” In short, if you aren’t really into the world-building of science fiction, then you might find this film a little long and maybe a bit overbearing.
But however you cut it, this is a don’t miss film. It isn’t at all a movie like The Power of the Dog, but it doesn’t have to be to still be terrific. It may very well be the beginning of the next Star Wars epic – if you haven’t already, see this movie – I don’t think you will regret the experience. (5 *)
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