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.