Dune (2021)

Alright, I’ve waited a long time for this film. The expectations were high, the talent is there, the source is impeccable but the task is daunting. So the question is, did Denis Villeneuve manage to overcome the obstacles to making “Dune” into a cogent film that will be embraced by the public. The short answer is “yes, sort of”. but the more accurate answer is that there continues to be a density to the story that anyone would have difficulty cutting through without having to change elements of the story in some way. All movies made from books will reflect the sensibilities of the writers, the producers and ultimately the director. That means that this can correctly be described as Villeneuve’s Dune. It certainly contains enough of the Frank Herbert source material to keep fans of the landmark book and serial novels happy. 

The movie is two and a half hours long, and I have seen it twice. The podcast today spent more than an hour dissecting it. I have had multiple conversations with my daughter about the film, and I reread the novel a week ago. I also spent two and a half hours with the 1984 version form David Lynch. This commentary then comes from the perspective of someone who deeply cares about the source material and the films made from them. Denis Villeneuve has crafted a handsome, completely credible and mostly entertaining version of this story. Because the film is only the first part of the original Dune Book, I will have to withhold some judgements about the story elements that deal with the antagonists in the saga. Although the Harkonnen are represented on screen, their presence is minimal at the moment, and that is a bit of a letdown.

One advantage that the new film takes advantage of is the character development. Paul and Duke Leto are given more time to show their relationship in this film. The extra time on Caladan, the Atreides’ home planet will help put in contrast the stark environment on Arrakis. Caladan is lush with forests, meadows and lakes and oceans that indicate a thriving ecosphere. The Atreides have had it easy and they will be going into an environment dramatically at odds with their previous existence. The Duke tries to explain to Paul what desert power will be, but we can’t know until we are steeped in it, what all it will include. The relationship between Paul and his mother, the Lady Jessica, played by Rebecca Ferguson, is also deeper here, providing a glimpse at how she is attempting to immerse him in the Bene Gesserit traditions and skills. At times, Timothée Chalamet as Paul looks like a lost emo kid, wandering across the hillsides in his black priests jacket. The few times he comes out of the dark introspection are when he meets with his mentor/stand-in older brother figure Duncan Idaho, played by Jason Momoa. The actor has a charismatic persona that helps us shortcut our way into his relationship with Paul. There is an added sequence with Momoa and Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Keynes, that improves the story and does these two characters a bit more justice than they receive in the book or earlier film. 

One of the problems with adapting the book to film is that there are so many competing interests and political entanglements, that it would be easy to miss important components. David Lynch tried to cram this information into narration, internal thoughts and the equivalent of early Google searches. The script by Villeneuve and cowriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, doesn’t bother to worry about most of that. The story flows pretty smoothly as a result, but a lot of the rich detail that makes the book so intriguing is lost. There is just enough of the Bene Gesserit story to explain why Paul is unique and potentially the most significant result of their breeding program. The complex connection between the Harkonnen and Atreides clans is not detailed. Paul’s visions are inserted regularly but they are inconsistent and the reasons for that inconsistency are not really explained by the film, although readers of the book will understand. Thufir Hawat is treated as a cuddly teddy bear rather than the master of assassins, Dr. Yueh’s imperial conditioning is not explained, nor is the manner of that conditioning being broken. The importance of his role as the traitor is minimized as a result, making the conspiracy a lot less interesting. I did think there were some good hints at the poet in the warrior Gurney Halleck, played by Josh Brolin. Some of these characters disappear from this film, but they should be a part of the second film when it arrives. It does make it hard to evaluate this as a stand alone film because of those threads that are dangling.

The greatest improvement from the 84 film, is the use of the Fremen culure, especially in the sequence where Paul and Jessica are discovered in the deep desert after their escape from Arrakeen. This is basically the climax of the film, although we did just have a complete invasion of the planet by hostile forces. Paul’s acceptance into the sietch led by Stilgar is an important step on his ascension to power. If you know the book, you know how Paul hesitates not merely because killing is new to him, but he foresees each act of violence on his part as cementing the path to a bloody jihad that he is trying to avoid. I was not sure that the film clarifies this as much as might be needed by audiences unfamiliar with the book. 

I’ve already made some passing comparisons to the David Lynch film, so inevitably there are more. On the favorable side of the ledger, the ornithopters in this version are more interesting and certainly more dynamic. They also more closely resemble the craft described by Herbert’s prose. While CGI can often ruin our engagement with a film, when it is used correctly, it enhances the visions we see. The sandworms of Arrakis are much more believable in this new edition of the story than the mechanical miniatures used back in 84. There was only one brief image of a sandworm being ridden in the film, but it looks like this will far outpace to somewhat clunky techniques that were requires thirty-seven years ago.  Even though it looks less realistic, I still prefer the animated shield work of the 84 film to the digital distortion of the new version. It just looks more interesting, even if it seems less realistic. The costumes and production design from the older film, also seem stronger to me, maybe because the colors pop and the detail is rich. Villeneuve has created utilitarian props and sets to present the characters in, Lynch’s vision is soaked in the mythology of each of the settings. Giedi Prime, the Harkonnen home planet is dark and fuzzy in Villeneuve’s film, Lynch’s industrial sensibility was so well matched with this location in his film that it is indelible and far superior. Little things like the box the Reverend Mother uses to test Paul, are more ornate and interesting in the 84 film.  

It is certainly a matter of style and taste so with the minimalist leanings of contemporary design, Villeneuve’s choices are probably fine. I simply like a broader color palate to look at. While the design of the Bene Gesserit gowns was not stupendous in 84, the 2021 outfits look like they come from dead nurses in a hospital from 1883. 

We have lots of things to look at that are superior in the new film, but let’s not dismiss the unusual and intriguing from the Lynch Film. Of course the two movies are great ways to see the difference a director can make in a film. The aesthetics in particular matter with these two directors. The action sequences in the current version of the film are more coherent and visually spectacular so that is another selling point to the new version. 

To complete the current review, I will update this post with a link to the podcast when it is completed. For now let me say I am happy with the new version of Dune. I don’t think it cracks the nut entirely on the intricate internal thoughts from the book, but it does streamline the story and make it very accessible to the audience. Every time one of the IMAX shots arrived, I was reminded of the work that David Lean did in “Lawrence of Arabia”. The film looks amazing in the macro sense but loses a little in the intimate scenes. We will be getting more of some of the characters in the second part so I will wait until then to expand on Stilgar and Chani. 

By all means, see this on the big screen. Save an HBO Max viewing for your fourth or fith time seeing the film. You will be glad you paid to go to a theater. 

Blade Runner 2049

I have a huge sense of Deja Vu with this picture. The advance screening we went to last night is foreshadowing some potentially unpleasant news for the studio that invested in this sequel. This is a movie that has been promoted all to hell, and at a 9:00 screening there were maybe two dozen people in the theater to see it. When I asked at the concession stand about the crowd that evening, the two girls said that there was a big crowd earlier, but they were all coming to see “Mully” , a specialty release. The employees didn’t even know what Blade Runner was. Thirty-five years ago, we went to an opening night screening of this new Harrison Ford film, and in a giant one thousand seat theater, there were maybe three hundred people. The 1982 Blade Runner tanked, and although it has a strong cult following and an impressive revisionist legacy, I’m a little concerned for how this new edition will do.

Director Denis Villeneuve was responsible for last year’s “Arrival” a film that placed highly on my end of the year list and the promise of Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford cemented this as one of the most anticipated films of the year. At least for cinema fans, as we are learning, there are fewer and fewer of us out there as every new movie platform launches. I hope I am wrong, because this is a solid film and deserves a wide audience, but I will understand if it follows it’s predecessor down the path of box office failure but cinematic glory. In many way it has the same strengths and weaknesses of the first film.

Blade Runner 2049 starts off with a cinematic technique that is not very encouraging. We get a title card with four paragraphs of exposition, moving on to the screen accompanied by the ominous score. If the film has to tell us what is happening instead of showing us, that is a danger sign. This movie doen’ even have a narration or character tell us the information, we have to read a preface. Once the story gets started however, things look a lot more promising. Actor Dave Bautista, who is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine,shows up in the opening section and there is a piece of action that seems about right for the start of the movie. The updated technology of the spinner car is displayed in bright light rather than in rain and the dark, and a mystery is introduced. So far so good. The follow up on the mystery is not so good. We do not ever understand exactly the relationship of Bautista’s character to the rest of the story, In fact, it is a red herring but a very confusing one. This is just the start of a great deal of muddled story that detracts from the characters and helps make the visual splendor of the film it’s main selling point. [This should start to sound familiar to all you fans of whatever cut of Blade Runner.]

“K” the Gosling character, is a different kind of Blade Runner. We find out when he first encounters his targets and that ask him how it feels to hunt down his own kind. I don’t think this is a spoiler since it comes up in the first few minutes of the film. His supervisor, the frighteningly stern Robin Wright, treats him only slightly better than a vacuum cleaner, although she clearly sees his utility and respects his work. Their relationship is set up like the traditional over bearing police supervisor and rebellious underling, except that “K” doesn’t really rebel and Wright’s “Madam”  doesn’t below as much as she scowls. They both participate in a reworking of the digital picture enhancement scene from the original film, and later Gosling repeats the procedure again in an outside context. Some more echos of the first film.

Very much as “The Force Awakens” mirrors the first “Star Wars”, 2049 is hitting some of the same beats as the original film more than three decades later. “Luv”, the assistant to the owner of the company that makes the replicants which are now more compliant than their older versions, is a combination of three of the characters from the first film, Pris, Zhora and Roy Batty himself. Ultimately you will hate her but there is a strange attractiveness about her methodical manner and diffident smile. Niander Wallace is the blind genius behind the new version of the Tyrell Company, and since he uses floating electronic eyes to see, he feels like a combination of J.F. Sebastian, Chew, and Tyrell himself. He speaks in obscure terms and platitudes. Jared Leto comes across as creepy villain but one who will rely on his creations to carry out his dirty work.

There are three or four plots going on all at once, but they don’t always gel into a coherent story. “K” loves “Joi” a virtual reality companion. Luv is protecting “K” at times and attacking him at other moments. Lt. Joshi, referred to usually as Madam, seems to be aware of a plot, but unwilling to pull the curtain back to reveal it. There is also the thread of a replicant revolution in the offing. The procedural of following leads is sidetracked by new sub-cultures or  background world building that gets more and more obtuse. It may all ultimately make sense but it will probably take the average person two or three viewings to figure it out. The question is whether anyone will be motivated to do so. This movie is almost three hours and it is not a fast three hours. This again mirrors the original film, which was deliberately paced and not action heavy. There are lengthy discussions between characters which are often meant to be so high context that the audience might well believe they are supposed to be excluded from the conversation.

 

So far it probably doesn’t sound much like I enjoyed the movie. In fact I did and it is marvelous in a lot of ways. I just want to be out front in pointing out that the story is problematic and the script not very engaging. What is engaging however are some of the performances, the great visual design of the film, and some of the world building that was only hinted at in the first movie. The combination of effects and characters are fascinating in several places. There is a great scene when a pleasure model replicant and  the virtual reality companion, share space so that “K” can have a tactile relationship with the object of his desire. It was a great creative moment and the effect looks a little like a misaligned 3D shot. The set designs in the future abandoned Las Vegas are also pretty spectacular. Hinting at the future of our current obsession with drinking, gambling and old time entertainment.

The women in this film make the strongest impressions. Villeneuve manages to make an initially lovely villainess more and more reptilian as the story develops. actress Sylvia Hoeks provides a face that is made for molding into beauty and fear at the same time. Ana de Armas is the virtual Joi and she feels like the most real character in the plot. She is a voice of reason, a love object and the lady in distress all at the same time. Gosling is a fine actor and holds his own against the ladies, up until the arrival of Harrison Ford in the last hour of the movie. Ford’s Deckard is familiar from the first film. He wants to remain detached, he is very smart but also has some of the limitations of humans, and he has had three decades to drink all the whisky he wants. Ford manages to upstage everyone else in the film even though his screen time is very limited. His scenes with Leto have a James Bond quality as he is interrogated, but he does not have any bravado or fear to throw up as a defense, he simply has his own weariness to assure him that he will win out in the end. Ford seems physically formidable for his age and there are none of the acting crutches that he uses in his other performances here. He did not phone it in for this one.

If you treasure the first film than you will probably love this one as well. Once you get used to the bombastic electronic score from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, you will be able to delight in the dense city backgrounds, stark farming landscapes and idiosyncratic technology of the future. It is a smart science fiction film with some good notions of what makes us human, but it is layered in a story that is murky and slow.

Arrival

Well, the title of this film could easily be announcing the start of the awards season as well as first contact with aliens. Amy Adams is a front-runner for acting honors and the film has an outside chance at being included on a honer list of nominees if the voting works out right. The last film I saw was the Mel Gibson directed “Hacksaw Ridge and along with this movie, we are now getting to the meat of the quality film season. “Arrival” is a cerebral science fiction film that manages to build tension with almost no violence at all, and it ponders some interesting questions about the nature of the planet and our future. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” from 1951 raised many of the same questions and used a similar style of tension to hold us in it’s thrall. “Arrival” has a story that is much different but themes that are similar and a tone that mirrors that sixty-five year old film precisely. We probably need that sort of message every half century or so.

Louise Banks is a linguist, who is recruited by the government to lead a team trying to communicate with the occupants of an alien craft that is located in one of twelve spots around the globe. The American team is working in Montana, a location that is remote enough to keep millions of people away, by also central enough that the whole country might feel threatened by the ship’s presence. If you remember the cover story used in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, you know that there might very well need to be secrecy when a first contact event takes place. The “X-Files” made the notion of secrecy a paranoid environment for intrigue, but this movie confronts the reality of what such an event would do to the planet. Panic, fear, riots and economic disruption of our way of life would be inevitable. The film shows these things only as news background though. The focus is not on how the social fabric of civilization might be torn by such an occurrence, but rather how it might be responded to by the leadership and scientific personnel that we trust.

I have a casual interest in linguistics as it relates to human communication. My problem is that I have no facility with language or patience with mathematics. So I am an outsider looking in on the process that was being explored here. I understood parts of it but frequently felt as if I should be getting more because after all, I am a communications person. Jeremy Renner is Adam’s counterpart from the math end of the team. As Ian Donnelly, he works with Louise to solve the puzzles of an alien language so that we as a planet can figure out whether to embrace the contact or fear it. The two of them have some great scenes where they in essence are acting against a screen, much like a giant aquarium, hoping to find a path and pattern to the linguistic puzzle. Adams must emote to light and early on through a hazmat suit. Inevitably, in order to make breakthroughs, the contact will have to be closer. In “Darmok”an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the Captain must manage to communicate with a species that uses only metaphor. As complicated as that might be, this film quadruples the challenge because the communication issues involve four dimensions, and we ultimately discover that the key to understanding is in the dimension we have the least ability at the moment to function in.

There is a prologue sequence that at first seems to be setting up our main character. That five minute section establishes Adams as a person, but there is far more going on here than we first suspect. I always avoid spoilers but I feel safe in saying that the devastating sequence, nearly as effective as the opening of the film “Up” will be understood in greater depth as the movie goes on. Amy Adams is wonderful as she goes through a nightmare scenario, but also as she relives it in several spots in the film. In addition to the moments of wonder that she impresses us with, there are expressions of pain and memory that are just as significant. This film is very nicely put together by director Denis Villenevue, to give us a non-linear story that we don’t even realize is happening in front of us. There are however a few clues as we go through the film. The picture window that looks out on the property that Adams experiences the prologue events through, is nearly identical in shape and background as the window in the alien vessel. The disconcerting gravity and physics of entering the alien ship are similar to the distortion that comes in a dream or memory.

The music of the film is oppressive without being dour, and that gives the story a feeling of expectation that the visuals also live up to. It is a science fiction film, but not one based on spectacle. The ships are simple, the vision of technology is interesting and the alien design is not anthropomorphic but it is not frightening in the way we see in most films about invaders from another world. The thing that works the best in the story from my point of view is the depiction of human uncertainty. The various countries that have contact with the pods communicate through a network, but they also disengage and keep secrets. There are no “bad” guys per se, rather there are people making the best decision they can with the information available to them. The Chinese General who appears to be turning the contact into a conflict, is simply acting in the best interests of humanity as he sees it. The problem is that communication with the aliens is not the only communication problem that the governments and scientists face. Humans are limited in their ability to frame information by their experience. It takes a whole new kind of experience to change any perceptions.

There is not much humor in the film but there is a great deal of humanity. Not everything will be explained by the resolution of the story. There are blind spots and questions about how any of this could work. Having seen “Interstellar” for a second time just a few weeks ago, reminds me that there are tough questions that are hard to answer when you get to theoretical physics. I will say that I hope the answer to one of those questions is in fact a piece of humor found in the movie. I now want to check out the places in the world that Sheena Easton had a big hit on the radio in 1980.