Friday, December 3, 2021

Preserving my body's water, and other Dune thoughts

I wrote to you six weeks ago about my personal countdown to the opening of Dune in Australia and the fact that I was trying to read the book before that happened.

But lately it's been clear that my whole cinematic life has been focused around the approach of December 2nd.

Not only was there the reading of the novel, which I knew I didn't have to complete in order to cover the events of this movie, which is technically Dune - Part One (though for now I don't think I'm going to write it that way in my lists). I got to page 350 (of 577) prior to the film opening, well past the point I knew would function as the climax of the movie, given what little birdies told me.

But then I had also paused in the chronology of about three different podcasts that were set to discuss Dune in their next episode. In recent days that has left me with a dearth of podcast material if I wanted to stay in chronological order, which I like to do if at all possible. 

It struck me as funny that I was both trying to avoid Dune spoilers and actively courting them. I mean, the very reading of the novel meant that I wasn't trying to keep the plot a mystery in my mind, never mind the fact that I'd already seen David Lynch's adaptation, though I don't remember much of it. There was always the possibility that I'd hear a bit of the plot ruined that I had not yet reached in my reading, but that wasn't really the motivation behind avoiding the podcasts.

No, it was that I wanted the style of this film to remain a mystery -- the look of it, to the extent I could (I was also avoiding trailers). I considered people's opinions on the film to be spoilers themselves, and if someone described some particular great shot or profound artistic choice, I didn't want that to be ruined.

Well opening night finally arrived last night, and because I was seeking an immediate end to all the various Dune-related states of suspended animation in my life, I made sure I was available to go.

I arrived at the theater sweaty from my ride along the bike path into the city to attend a 9:20 showing at Crown Casino's Village Cinema, a favorite spot for big blockbusters due to its massive VMax screens and the fact that they don't blink at taking my critics card. Some other places aren't taking them right now as they assess their own financial bottom lines in pandemic times, and though I understand that, I also like getting movies for free, my right as a member of the Australian Film Critics Association and my only compensation for being a working film critic in 2021.

I also really like this ride. The bike path snakes along a river from my house down to the Docklands, and I hug the Docklands and into the city proper, only having to cross traffic about three times total. It's a lovely little ride of about 20 minutes, and when I move from North Melbourne to Altona in a few weeks, I'll probably never do it again. 

But the sweaty arrival, coupled with my COVID mask, made me think of one of the characters from Dune in his or her stillsuit, the highly refined desert wear that recycles sweat and saliva to result in a loss of less than a thimble of water per day. I'm not sure if my rain jacket itself (it was also lightly sprinkling) was the primary reminder of this, since it's orange rather than the dark gray of the movie, but the mask definitely pushed the whole getup in that direction. 

And then, finally, it was time for Dune.


A massive, impressive sci-fi vision

I'm not going to give a true review of my feelings on Dune here, nor do I expect to do so on ReelGood, as another writer claimed the movie like six months ago. (Given the percentage of reviews I currently write for ReellGood, I was happy to oblige.) But I did think I should give you some sense of my thoughts on the movie itself before I get into the extra-textuals that typically comprise a post like this.

Simply put, Denis Villeneuve is a master of size and scale.

What a large vision. Everything that felt small about Lynch's Dune was trebled and quadrupled here, except the acting styles, which were not laughable as they were in that movie. The sweeping desert vistas, the ships of all shapes and sizes that disgorge other ships, the ornithopters beating their wings like dragonflies, the covered cityscapes to shut out the heat, and finally, the massive worms, whose Sarlaac Pit-style openings for mouths are usually all you see of them -- and all you need to see. It's all there in Villeneuve's vision and it's all absolutely breathtaking. Even though there's comparatively little time spend on the Atreides home world of Caladan, even that is built out into a true physical space with its own distinct ecologies and architecture.

It's just all there.

I'm not really sure what more you could want from a Dune movie than this. I still haven't sampled the critical consensus on the film, and I'm sure there are people out there nitpicking about certain decisions, but before I do go wading into those reviews, I don't know what those nitpicks might be. (And I'll probably wait a few more days before I do, just to be sure my colleague does actually write the review and I don't have to pinch hit for him.)

It strikes me as more successful by a fair bit than Villeneuve's previous venture into prestige sci-fi, that being Blade Runner 2049, which was also quite a complete and distinct vision. There the story felt like it really dragged, and that the choices made within that story were sometimes questionable. No such problem for Dune, though being in the process of reading the book certainly could help in that regard. In fact, I felt that this movie streamlines and even improves the book in necessary ways, even while covering only half of its content in this first movie. As just one example, what happens with Dr. Kines in this movie -- who was also re-envisioned as a woman -- is more satisfying and less of a cosmic joke.

All in on Chalamet

There have been times during Timothee Chalamet's rise to fame when I have been unsure if he were the real deal or if we were being sold a bill of goods. To be clear, I have never doubted his ability as an actor, which was present from the moment we were all first exposed to him in Call Me By Your Name. But maybe because I reacted to that movie a little less positively than some people, some of that skepticism rubbed off on Chalamet, and I've since been wondering if he's more hype than hope.

No more.

I could not imagine a more perfect casting choice for Paul Atreides, and maybe I never had to imagine one because I knew before even reading the book that Chalamet had been cast for this. But I don't think that prevents me from recognizing the brilliance of getting Chalmaet for this role. There's something in those eyes that creates a presence, a tone, the sort of thing you could easily imagine religious people latching on to as they seek their messiah. In this case that's a good thing, but it's also a complicated thing, and I think Chalamet's performance perfectly embodies that.

But there's a particular moment I wanted to call attention to, which is Chalamet's variety of expressions as he has his hand inserted in that box with the gom jabbar at his neck. Maybe that's the moment everyone is talking about, I don't know -- remember, I've been avoiding reviews and other thoughts on the movie. But he runs the gamut from pain to righteousness to calm as he endures the Bene Gesserit test, and the range of his emotions is not as simple as those three words I've used to describe them. In each shot that returns to his face, he's in a different part of that journey, something subtly more or less intense, something frightening in its very determination, its superiority, its disgust. There's possibly something even psychotic in there. Remember, with Paul Atreides, it's complicated.

Duncan Idaho doing Duncan Idaho things

One of the things I found strange about the novel is that we lose characters from the narrative before it feels like we've even really met them. One of these is Duncan Idaho, who I knew from near the start of reading was being played by Jason Momoa. 

When Idaho dies in the book with little fanfare, I wondered why they had even bothered to get someone with Momoa's star wattage to play the character. I think this points to something a bit unusual about Frank Herbert's writing. While he goes into great detail about some things, he gives relatively little "screen time," as it were, to others. Idaho is a prime example of this. We hear his name a couple times and there are vague mentions of his role in House Atreides and warrior feats he may have accomplished, but he's gone before he gets a real "scene."

This movie corrects for that. The script by Villeneuve, Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts gets him on screen about every 15 minutes for one reason or another, so by the time we do lose him, he's done the things we'd expect of a character with his importance to the narrative. We see him fighting not once but twice, whereas in the book, those fight scenes are vaguely alluded to but not detailed. 

It's another way the film takes what seem like small oversights in the book and gets the most out of them. Or maybe, more charitably, capitalizes on the advantage films can sometimes have over books, which is to depict things that might seem laborious to depict in a novel. While Herbert's writing would probably have been weakened by a blow-by-blow description of Idaho fighting Sardukar warriors, we can see that in the movie and we can appreciate what it means to lose a warrior of his abilities.

Words I was pronouncing wrong

It was disappointing to learn what the "official" pronunciation of Harkonnen is. 

I put "official" in quotation marks because you can never be sure what the "real" pronunciation is of a made up word that appears in print. Presumably, Herbert gave interviews at the time, during which he spoke the word out loud and confirmed what he envisioned as its pronunciation. But if not, then I disagree with the pronunciation they've chosen here.

When I say this word in my head, I say "Har-COE-nin." When they say this word in the movie, they say "HARK-uh-nin."

I don't suppose I can really argue why my pronunciation is better than theirs, but I do think my pronunciation is easier to say. I also think it sounds more threatening, though I can justify that impression even less. 

The other phrase I wasn't saying quite right was "Bene Gesserit," mostly because I used the hard G sound at the start of the second word rather than the J sound they use. I actually think theirs is better in this case.

Actors who weren't playing the characters I thought they were

One of the cast members I knew before seeing the movie was Dave Bautista playing Baron Harkonnen, which I discovered through an ill-fated google image search. In fact, I mentioned this accidental discovery in the post I wrote six weeks ago.

Of course, Bautista does not actually play this role.

I'm not sure what happened with that google search, and I can't recreate it now as the search produces the correct results this time. Baron Harkonnen is actually played -- quite chillingly, I might add -- by Stellan Skarsgaard. Bautista's role is Rabban, actually not a character who really factors in to the first part of the book if memory serves. 

Now that I've seen the movie, of course my own images of the characters is going to suffer for the 200+ pages of the book I have remaining. For example I know now that Gurney Hallack is Josh Brolin, and Thufir Hawat is Stephen McKinley Henderson. However, I don't think this is going to change my view of the Lady Jessica, who I have envisioned as Jessica Chastain (probably because she shares the character's name). Even though I learned early on that Rebecca Ferguson was playing this role, it wasn't enough to supplant my image of Chastain for the character.

What other sci-fi franchises can Villeneuve salvage/revive?

Now that he's made the consecutive grand sci-fi visions of Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and Dune, Villleneuve has clearly established himself as one of the preeminent makers of prestige sci-fi, right up there with guys like Christopher Nolan, James Cameron and Ridley Scott. In fact, his track record probably contains fewer blemishes than any of those guys.

It's probably also pigeonholed him a bit. Oh well. It's not a bad way to be pigeonholed.

Villeneuve has got a full slate with the second Dune on the way, an announced role as director of the new Cleopatra movie and even an announced directing credit for a Dune TV series. But it did occur to me to think about what other sci-fi brands could get boosted by a little of the Denis Villeneuve touch. 

Here are the top five, in no particular order:

1) Denis Villeneuve could probably make a really great Terminator movie.

2) Denis Villeneuve could probably make a really great Alien movie.

3) Denis Villeneuve could probably make a really great remake of Strange Days.

4) Denis Villeneuve could probably make a really great Matrix movie.

5) Denis Villeneuve could probably make a really great Star Wars movie.

Some of those may be obvious, and they do involve the work of the aforementioned Scott and Cameron. And I've only listed them without elaborating because you can probably imagine what movies like this would look like under the creative supervision of this man. 

But I guess what I'm saying is that whatever this guy makes in the future of his career, even if he can't get to any of these ideas until 2025 or later, I'm there. This is a man who knows how to make movies.


The night almost ended on a sour note. As I was riding my bike back home well after midnight, in fact probably closer to 1, I was listening to The Next Picture Show podcast, in which they compare a new release to a classic film that may have helped inspire it. I wasn't ready to fully listen to a Dune podcast yet -- if I have to review the movie, I don't want my perspective to be biased -- but in this particular pairing, the first episode was about Lawrence of Arabia. They'll get to Dune on the next episode.

When I was about eight minutes from home, one of my ear buds popped out, and I couldn't find it.

It was something I should have expected. As I took my helmet on and off, I risked dislodging my right ear bud on multiple occasions, and had to push it back in place. I should have known that it was not fully in there and was susceptible to falling out. In fact, kind of like Paul Atreides with his visions, I predicted it would happen even before it did. 

The spot where it fell was on the bike path, so I didn't have to worry about a car driving over it or anything. And I noticed the loss of sound from the right ear almost immediately. But because I couldn't find it straight away, I worried that it might in fact have fallen in the busy road I'd just recently crossed, or worse, fallen down the grate I had just ridden over, lost for good. I had even removed the bike light from the front of my bike and was using it as a flashlight over a stretch over a decent stretch of path.

After more than five minutes of looking, and just when I was about to give up, there it was, glistening a little in the dirty by the side of the path, not too much before the spot I'd originally stopped.

Better yet, it was still in perfect wording order.

Good ear buds. They're comparable to a good stillsuit in terms of bang for your buck. 

And thus ends a Dune odyssey whose post rivals the girth of the movie. 

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