October 21, 2021

CINEMA | Denis Villeneuve Dreams of 'Dune' – Spice World

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer."
Timothée Chalamet Denis Villeneuve | Dune
Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures
Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve reimagines his solemn adaptation of the first half of author Frank Herbert's foundational 1965 science-fiction literary opus into a cerebral visual spectacular. Dune: Part One (as titled on-screen) is an interstellar feudal political drama about spice mining set in the distant future of the year 10191.

Starring Timothée Chalamet as Paul of House Atreides, essentially a young aristocratic prince-type with mysterious mind powers who is the son of a Duke (Oscar Isaac) and space witch concubine (Rebecca Ferguson), seemingly destined to become the next prophetic chosen one. His family is sent to the harsh desert planet of Arrakis on a doomed political mission before a violent betrayal starts an interplanetary conflict he must avenge as the socially engineered messiah by finding the survivalist indigenous desert people native to planet.

Chalamet and Isaac in particular give really fine, stoic performances as conflicted leaders. They really sell the complex political nature of the hallucinogenic spice substance as an essential commodity to be controlled. What really is made clear is how influential Herbert's seminal writing has already been in cinema history with touchstones from everything like Star Wars to The Matrix clearly felt in its sci-fi explorations of mediative themes of human survival and advanced society.

Oscar Isaac Denis Villeneuve | Dune

Scripted by Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Villeneuve himself, the abstractly introspective script cuts the novel right in half. Part One feels like almost entirely set up without any ending or kind of satisfying resolution. Dune's landscapes and visual splendor make the feudal space politics easier to swallow despite some clearly coded and dated themes of orientalism and colonialism. Fortunately, the fine performances and mildly diverse all-star cast make the tricky, sometimes dated, mid-'60s science-fiction material work cinematically.

As swordmaster Duncan Idaho, Jason Momoa is full of heroic valor in a fun Han Solo role he's clearly relishing. We see Zendaya mostly in flashes, dream sequences, and as future memories teasing her role in a planned sequel adapting the second half of the novel. Alongside Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, and Javier Bardem as various members of different interplanetary factions at war with each other, there's a fair amount of intricate exposition needed to be laid out.

Villeneuve ponderously reimagines Dune as a somberly faithful and contemplative adaptation of the spice opera with grandeur in excess. In many ways, the half of a film feels overly ambitious in its hard sci-fi fantasy meets arthouse style. It's more than occasionally frustrating how much promise there is without the explicit guarantee of a second half. Sadly, "It's only the beginning."


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