The year is almost at an end and I have just watched a second movie from the multiplex. Something which would have been scarcely possible in prior years, but the onset of a pandemic takes away such simple pleasures as well. But there are movies or filmmakers I deem unmissable in the biggest of screens and, after Nolan’s Tenet, Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune is one I couldn’t miss. The director’s Blade Runner 2049, though commercially underwhelming, was a film whose visual language amidst its big budget background I loved. For others who felt the same, expect more of this style in this movie too, the first part of the story of a book which has long been considered un-filmable. Herbert’s Dune is considered something of a holy grail of science fiction and there has been a history of aborted (Jodorowsky) and failed (Lynch’s version in 1984) attempts to bring it to the big screen.
It’s the universe of 10191 AD and humans are living in various colonies and planets, none of which seem to be earth. The planet of Arrakis is where the major action happens. Beset by near uninhabitable desert winds and arid climates, it is also the home of the mystical substance ‘Spice’ which, among other things, fuels intergalactic travel and is prized by all and sundry. However, the locals called Fremen, who have adapted to the living conditions on Arrakis, are understandably wary of outsiders and their obvious motives to be on the planet. But a period of titanic change and battle is about to unfold. For, the emperor, for designs of his own, has taken away the stewardship of Arrakis from the Harkonnens, who had been mining the planet for a long time, and handed it to House Atreides and its Duke (Oscar Isaac). The Duke reaches the planet with his family and people and soon realizes that it’s a virtually impossible task they have been set. The Duke’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is undergoing his own awakening as his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) evokes the powers inherent within him with the help of her forebears in the mysterious lineage of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Paul is also troubled by visions in his sleep, most of which involve a Fremen girl Chani (Zendaya). As in a lot of stories of this kind, his ascension to be the ‘chosen one’ occupies a big part of the narrative. It is no surprise that one of the series which was considered to be inspired by this work is none other than the original Star Wars movies, which has similar journeys undertaken by the young lead.
But it’s a remarkably dangerous situation the Atreidans find themselves in. Apart from the intergalactic wrangling from the Emperor and the Harkonnens to wrest back control of the Spice, they have to deal with the potentially antagonistic Fremen as well as a giant species of sandworms which thrive under the vast, undulating dunes of the desert. When the inevitable tragedy strike, it is Paul who must rise up to the challenge that destiny has set for him and forge an alliance with the Fremen.
As mentioned, this movie is just the beginning of the story and ends inconclusively. But it does set up a lot of the things to come pretty well. Villeneuve is sometimes criticized for being a joyless director, and while that maybe true of a lot of his efforts, over here there is some humor to be had, including a particularly funny one with Javier Bardem as a Fremen leader. Jason Momoa also has some good lines as pilot Duncan Idaho. The plot allegories to the real world are obvious, with the colonial powers hankering of oil in the Middle Eastern world an example. But irrespective, the film is an immensely well-made and acted ensemble. The scenes in the desert, especially around the mysterious sand worms, are brilliantly filmed and keeps the pulse racing. But it also allows for the quieter moments of introspection and character development which makes it stand out from most big budget tentpoles.
The acting is mostly excellent. Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson are brilliant, bringing real charisma and strength to their portrayals. The rest of the supporting cast too are well cast in their roles. I do have a few reservations on the lead though. Timothée Chalamet just seemed a bit too slight and not very charismatic enough presence for the central character. However, considering the awakening young hero narratives which are seen in these kind of stories, it is probably apt casting so I’ll probably reserve judgement till the whole tale has been played out. Which I sure hope will come out soon enough.