Dune (the 2021 film)
I have now, as I mentioned a week or two ago that I was planning to do, seen Dune, the recent one directed by Denis Villeneuve. I enjoyed it, enough that when someone suggested watching it again I was quite willing. It's very impressive visually, and I don't mean by that to suggest mere spectacle, though it has plenty of that. It's rich and often beautiful in the same way that many scenes in Villeneuve's Arrival are (and sometimes horrifying, which Arrival never is), and I was reminded of Arrival almost immediately in the opening scene of Dune. Villeneuve likes to make his alien technology mysterious, curvy and vague rather than angular and coldly mechanical, as in Star Wars.
Taken entirely on its own terms, as a film, it's very successful. Even at two-and-a-half hours it didn't seem too long. Compared to something like Star Wars or one of the Marvel movies, it's slow. But it's still full of action, perhaps to a fault; I say that because I'm pretty sure that it glosses over the complexity of the book in favor of action--battles and such.
Before I say more I should say that I read the book more than forty years ago, in the mid- or late '70s, and don't remember it in any detail. But I do remember that it's a big novel with a lot of detail about its invented cultures and peoples. And there's not much of that detail in the movie. I noticed especially the one-sentence explanation of the importance of "spice," a drug necessary to the whole economy of the empire depicted in the book: that it helps spaceship pilots "to find a safe path between the stars" or something like that. Well, I remember enough of the book to know that that hardly begins to touch the nature of the stuff, which gives its users very extraordinary mental powers. I won't attempt to say more because I don't remember much more, but it's an extremely important part of the story.
We all know that it's more or less intrinsically impossible to do real justice to a big novel in a movie, even a two-and-a-half hour one, or even a five-hour one--this is only the first of two planned movies. So I don't say that this is really a fair or valid complaint, only that there is a lot missing, and, as with the Lord of the Rings movies, what's missing is important, and can only be gotten by reading the book. Which I plan to do in the fairly near future, at least before Part Two is released, currently meant to happen this fall. In fact I think the desire to (re)read the book is the strongest effect that the movie had on me.
What should I say about the actors and, given the strangeness of the world depicted in the movie, the combined ability of the actors, the director, the cinematographer, and the costumers and others to make the characters believable? Well, they all worked, though I thought some worked better than others. For at least the first half of the film I thought Timothée Chalamett seemed too frail, even weak, to be Paul Atreides, the central character. But that may have been deliberate, as he began to grow and strengthen throughout the film. I must say I was reminded of the generally disliked portrayal of the young Anakin Skywalker in the generally disliked film (whichever one it was) where he grows into Darth Vader. I hope that impression won't continue in the second half.
I'll mention one actress and character who struck me as especially good: Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Paul's mother. Her full name is Rebecca Louisa Ferguson Sundström, and she's a mixture of Swedish and British ancestry. As Paul's mother, she is appropriately warm and empathetic. As a member of the mysterious and powerful quasi-religious Bene Gesserit, she is, when the occasion calls for it, fierce and hard, bordering on scary. I suppose she has some Viking ancestry. She would make a good Kristin Lavransdatter.
Oh, and Stellan Skarsgård is completely unrecognizable as the evil, repulsive, and Jabba-the-Hutt-level obese Baron Harkonnen.
It occurs to me that Villeneuve also directed Blade Runner 2049, which I have also seen, and I wonder now why I never thought of it while watching Dune. I found it disappointing, but that was mainly for reasons having to do with the way it developed the original story. Maybe it would be worthwhile to see it again, focusing on the visuals.
I wonder, not for the first time, why science fiction depictions of the far future seem almost instinctively to turn to empires, emperors, nobles and noble families, knights and ladies, and swordfights. Is it because there is something archetypal in them? Or are they just a cultural memory that keeps coming back because it offers dramatic possibilities that democratic thinking does not?
And it's a little curious that Frank Herbert (author of the book(s)) incorporated so much of Arab/Islamic culture into the native peoples of Arrakis, the desert planet of the title. His biography at Wikipedia doesn't mention any acquaintance with them, but I remember noticing it when I read the book, and it's certainly present in the movie. And in the score, by Hans Zimmer, full of drums and ululations. It struck me as good but a little overdone. It's probably just as well that I didn't hear it in a theater, at the over-the-top volume levels which have become normal there.
This is, obviously, not on Arrakis, where most of the story takes place, but on Caladan, the home planet of the Atreides clan.
My wife thought the ornithopters were really cool.
I'm not sure what it was about it that left me mildly dissatisfied. I guess one is that I know the book pretty well and this story seems just like the other two adaptations in that regard, touching on climactic scenes and not much else (length of book versus movie time). Another, that I believe I mentioned elsewhere in your blog, is I don't really enjoy this actor. But like all things by this director it did look really good. If it remains on HBO Max I should give it another go sometime.
Desert = Arab culture, maybe? Making cultural connections where there ought be none (made up SciFi universe), we think Sahara Desert and then think Arab type peoples, Bedouins and such.
Re-watching the Blade Runner sequel while mostly studying visuals is a good idea, Mac. I also found the story lacking, and at this point remember little of it. Also, it has another actor that doesn't do much for me - Ryan Gosling.
Posted by: Stu | 02/27/2023 at 06:07 AM
"we think Sahara Desert and then think Arab type peoples" Yeah, that could be the main explanation. I think he uses the term "jihad," which would indicate that he did some research. I wouldn't think it would have been a word known to many Americans in the early '60s.
I really remember almost nothing of BR2049. There was a very elaborate scene involving the creation or activating or something of a replicant who's a nude woman, and I remember thinking it was pandering.
I think I was also underwhelmed by Gosling's character. However, the reason I even recognize his name is a movie called Drive in which he stars. I can't even guess now how or why I happened to see it, but I thought it was very good. He plays a sort of getaway-driver-for-hire (iirc) and in that role his sort of bland vibe worked very well--an ordinary
-looking person with hidden strength.
Posted by: Mac | 02/27/2023 at 11:53 AM
Maybe I don't really like Denis Villeneuve. Last night I watched the first 30 mins of both Dune (HBO Max) and BR2049 (Hulu), and neither got me interested enough to continue. They both look really good so perhaps this is a style over substance thing. Very cold, no one would dare to smile, at least in these two introductory portions. I remember enjoying Arrival from beginning to end, and looking at his filmography I have seen nothing before Arrival.
However, I may watch more of one or both tonight. I don't remember much of BR2049 except that he (Ryan Gosling - "K") goes and finds Harrison Ford's character somewhere.
Posted by: Stu | 02/28/2023 at 08:02 AM
I watched BR2049 yesterday and liked it better than the first time. Definitely more impressed with the visuals, and also liked the story better, though I still have some reservations. I'm pretty sure that I missed some important details the first time around. Having captions on helped with that, also the ability to rewind and pause. Also, there are definitely some times when style seems to have too much of the upper hand. Pretty cool style, though.
Posted by: Mac | 02/28/2023 at 09:40 AM
I finished BR2049 yesterday and do feel a little more positive than my previous thoughts. This director definitely has a style, and on top of that a coldness that doesn't really endear you very much to characters. When Harrison Ford shows up I felt like his personality was big enough to escape from the directorial prison. I read on Wikipedia that Netflix is doing a BR2099 series (well, of course) with Ridley Scott having some hand in it.
Posted by: Stu | 03/01/2023 at 05:15 AM
I'm sure I'll watch it.
One thing (in particular) that I didn't understand: in that last fight scene, where water is rising around them, where are they? If that was explained, I missed it.
I was also puzzled by that question-and-answer session that K is subjected to twice. I found this Wiki which answers that question (it's a test to determine a replicant's emotional stability, though I didn't entirely get how). But it doesn't answer my question above.
Interesting somewhat trivial fact: the words used in the test are from the poem which is the sort of centerpiece of Nabokov's Pale Fire, a novel which I read long ago and really liked and should read again. It's narrated by a fan/biographer/critic of the famous poet who wrote the poem.
Posted by: Mac | 03/01/2023 at 09:38 AM
Ah, and at one point the fake woman (Ana de Armas) picks up a copy of Pale Fire in his apartment and acts like she or he might read it? Then I think she says that he doesn't like it, or something.
I had that same thought about the water, or I should say that my thought was it was there for dramatic effect (will Harrison Ford drown?) with no explanation at all. In a film with so little emotional investment in any character at all it is interesting how they made that one Wallace henchwoman replicant so mean that I couldn't wait for K to take her out!
Posted by: Stu | 03/01/2023 at 10:19 AM
I noticed the book in that scene but didn't connect it with the poem. Not surprisingly since I don't remember it. I guess K's dismissal of it has to do with his attitude toward the test. Here's an explanation of the test:
The actress who plays Joi is one beautiful young woman.
Posted by: Mac | 03/01/2023 at 12:26 PM
Haven't seen Dune yet but I liked BR2049 enough to see it twice in the theater. It definitely made more sense the second time.
I like Ryan Gosling a lot as an actor. I first saw him in Lars and the Real Girl, which I didn't think I was going to like but did, and then Drive, for which my feelings were similar -- watched it somewhat under protest, because of the reputation for violence, but ended up liking it very much. He was also good, I thought, in The Place Beyond the Pines, which is a sort of generational crime drama, and especially in The Big Short, where he plays a smarmy, funny bond trader.
Posted by: Rob G | 03/03/2023 at 07:34 AM
I haven't seen any of those others.
I vaguely remembered that I had a grudge against one of the makers of BR2049 that had discouraged me from seeing it again. I found it: t was about the infamous Covington Catholic incident, when the Smart Good People went into a frenzy about that one boy:
Michael Green, one of the screenwriters for Blade Runner 2049. Green said (on Twitter, naturally) of the now-famous boy in the MAGA hat :
A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him.
My interest in seeing BR 2049 again died a quick death when I saw that.
If I'd looked that up before watching it again I might not have.
Posted by: Mac | 03/03/2023 at 09:25 AM
LOL I had completely forgotten about that incident, Mac!
Concerning yourself with the overtly liberal tendencies of Hollywood people is probably not a good idea. ;-)
Or for that matter anything at all that is said on Twitter.
Posted by: Stu | 03/03/2023 at 12:29 PM
"liberal," sure, no problem. There's nothing remotely liberal about that guy's comment, and the whole initial reaction to that incident. It was mob frenzy. But that's true about Twitter. I don't know what it is about Twitter that seems to bring out that kind of thing even more than other online environments.
Posted by: Mac | 03/03/2023 at 01:13 PM
The Big Short is excellent. I've watched it at least three times. Good as he is, the highlight isn't Gosling though, it's Christian Bale as Michael Burry, the on-the-spectrum savant who predicted the housing bubble crash. I think he got an Oscar nomination for the role.
Posted by: Rob G | 03/03/2023 at 01:24 PM
I'm a little embarrassed to admit that my interest in The Big Short has been limited by the feeling that I wouldn't be able to understand it. But maybe I'll give it a try. Wikipedia quotes people saying that it's a pretty accurate picture of the financial dealings.
Posted by: Mac | 03/03/2023 at 02:33 PM
I didn't understand it, but found it enjoyable. A lot of what I watch I don't really understand. LOL that's why I prefer to read; there is something of a disconnect between words and my brain when they are spoken. I think this is the same reason I cannot do audio books at all.
Posted by: Stu | 03/03/2023 at 03:19 PM
No, one of the great things about The Big Short is that it wants to make the crash understandable, and it does so primarily via humor. At several points in the movie the narrative stops, certain celebrities appear in cameos and speak directly to the audience, explaining the more arcane concepts. It sounds kind of silly but it works well, and is a quite funny idea to boot. Also, Gosling's character provides a sort of running narrative that helps fill in the blanks. It's all very well done, and hugely entertaining.
Posted by: Rob G | 03/04/2023 at 06:50 AM
I found an interview with Michael Lewis, who wrote the book the movie is based on. What he says about Christian Bale and acting is really interesting:
'I told him that I spent a year with Michael Burry—clearly unusual, glass eye, Asperger’s, sitting alone in an office in San Jose, hated by the people he made a fortune for—and I couldn’t have generated the impression [Bale] did. He said, “I spent a day with Burry.” I said, “OK a day, that’s not a ton.” Bale went into Burry’s office one day at 9 a.m., sat with him until 6 p.m., and didn’t get up for food or to go to the bathroom. Nine straight hours. That was it. At the end of it, he asked for Burry’s T-shirt and shorts, which he wears in the movie.
So I kept bugging him about how he did it. He was giving me these general answers, and I bothered him so much that he finally said, “It’s the way he breathes.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “He breathes during odd times when he is talking, and a lot of the mannerisms flow from the breath. I started with the breath. If I didn’t have this going, nothing else worked.” This is why he’s Christian Bale. I was thinking: I should be doing this going forward when I am writing about characters. I wish I had known this stuff when I was writing the book.'
More here: https://slate.com/culture/2015/12/michael-lewis-on-the-big-short-how-journalism-is-like-acting-and-margot-robbie-in-a-bathtub.html
Posted by: Marianne | 03/05/2023 at 05:17 PM
I used to think acting was a fairly simple art, a matter of learning the lines and saying them with some semblance of believable expression. And that the actors called great were so mainly because of some kind of personal charisma or looks. I no longer think that way. I get continually more and more impressed with the good ones. Also, I think the acting in mainstream movies and tv has improved massively in my lifetime.
Posted by: Mac | 03/05/2023 at 10:43 PM