Thursday, December 2, 2021

In the Reels: ‘Dune’ larger than life sci-fi done right

Cameron Kaercher

Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel “Dune” has proved elusive in cinematic adaptations. Spurred on by the successes of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” the first “Dune” film was released in 1984 and was met with confusion. The two-hour feature tried to compress this 400-page epic novel, but the result was a messy, visually interesting slog that is one of director David Lynch’s lesser works.

It feels that today’s audiences are willing to wait for larger cinematic stories, and so “Dune” is receiving another adaptation and will be split into two feature films.

“Dune Part One” tells the story of Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, the heir to a noble ruling family. The patriarch Duke Leto, played by Oscar Isaac, is given control of the planet Arrakis by the galactic Imperial House Corrino. Arrakis is a desirable planet as its desert landscapes hold an unlimited supply of “spice,” a sand-like substance that can aid human vitality and is critical for interstellar travel. With priceless natural resources, war will break out for control of the planet between the House Atreides, the House Harkonnen and the Arrakis native people, the Fremen.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s whole career feels as if it has been building up to this film. His previous feature was “Blade Runner 2049.” The Oscar-winning sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” was critically acclaimed, but failed to pull in a worthwhile box office, only grossing $92.1 million in North America. In a recent interview with the “Happy Sad Confused” podcast, Villeneuve admitted, “I knew that when I did [Blade Runner 2049], I flirted with disaster.”

Villeneuve would continue to flirt with disaster with “Dune.” The film’s $160 million-plus budget would be tough to recoup in a time where there wasn’t a national pandemic to contend with. Like it or not, Hollywood is a business, and money talks. It was a real risk to make this part one to a story without confirmation that part two will be on its way after this.

For now, “Dune Part One” will have to be judged on its own. And each piece of “Dune’s” storytelling creates an overall unique experience.

The score by Hans Zimmer is impossible to resist. Combining synths, strings, massive drum sections and haunting female chants, it is Zimmer’s most varied composition to date. The track “Ripples in the Sand” is a sonic 5-hour energy drink.

Villeneuve’s command over the sweeping action setpieces is as strong as ever. The spaceships feel larger than life, deserts stretch on infinitely and the hand-to-hand combat has tight choreography. Near the halfway point of the story, a nighttime raid on the Atreides compound recalls Villeneuve’s earlier feature, “Sicario,” that dealt with drug cartels. Both films have a real master behind the camera at developing tension and knowing the exact frame to break the tension and allow havoc to let loose.

Most importantly, “Dune Part One” does not feel like it’s made for kids. There is no need to jam in fan service like the previous “Star Wars” messes, and not every serious moment needs a joke at the end to dissolve tension like any other Marvel movie. 

The story is long, however, it moves quickly and gracefully. The film is also streaming on HBO MAX, but that would be like looking at a picture of a nice meal, seeing “Dune Part One” in a theater will be like savoring each bite while still leaving room for the next course.

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