Desert power. (Desserts or deserts: Part 5 of 4)
To close out the year, I implore you to grab some friends and/or loved ones and watch one of the best films in recent memory, firmly in the middle of the Venn diagram between “big budget blockbuster,” “arthouse appeal,” and “historically significant literary epic.” Turn the lights down. Turn the volume up.
Dune (2021) is a blast. Before we even see the standard parade of studios and distributors that we expect in the first frames of any movie, we hear a glottal language saying some kind of gibberish in a space language that makes absolutely no sense. Thankfully, there are subtitles: “Dreams are messages from the deep.” Deep can mean many things: some underlying force controlling our destiny. Our subconscious. The sands of Arrakis, where the worms reside. There are lively debates on the meaning of this opening phrase, given the incredible breadth of the books, and perusing them on the internet is just one of the many reasons Dune is a joy: the universe we’re exposed to in the first film is the tip of the iceberg.
If you enjoyed it, and you’ve seen the trailer (or the second or third) for the upcoming Dune: Part Two (2024), then you know how this universe will expand. Christopher Walken, for starters. If you’ve read any of the books, you don’t need any level-setting: this universe/story is uniquely bananas. I recently re-watched Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (pure holiday comfort viewing), and while rewatching Dune, I was struck by some of the similar methods that were used to make the viewer feel that they’re witnessing a convincing reality: off-handed exposition regarding local customs or traditions, sweeping wide shots that establish different epic planetary settings, contrasted with meticulous attention to the little details that make any universe feel real. (Outfits, vehicles, flora, fauna, construction, weapons, etc.) In one scene, we see the smoke of a Fremen’s pipe waft past the blue eyes of other Fremen as they mull about underground in prayer, waiting out the high sun.
These are the things that make Dune a strong start for what might ultimately be one of the most impressive feats of fantasy/sci-fi committed to film. Denis Villeneuve’s track record is impeccable. I tried to rank his films but it’s a truly impossible feat: Blade Runner: 2049 (2017) in fifth place!? Yikes. The likeliness that he sees Dune through to a satisfying completion feels hopefully high. In an increasingly fracturing media landscape, it’s hard to know how likely the financial commitment from a studio to make a series of films as bold as this will continue, so enjoy it while you can.
If this film has a fault, it’s the score. Maybe I’m burnt out on Hans Zimmer. Anyone who has seen a blockbuster in the last 20 years will recognize Zimmer or the influence of Zimmer at work in the score. As the credits roll and the heavily smoothed-out distorted electric guitars squeal, then stop, then give way to a tribal “Hyahhhhhhhhhh ahhhhh eyyyyyyyyy” and some drums meant to make us think of non-white countries, I think, “huh, this might not age well.” It’s the least adventurous part of the film.
The first time I watched Dune, I was disappointed. It felt overly dense. The second time I watched Dune, portions of it started to click, and I grew more curious about the portions that still weren’t clicking. (Wait, how is the Baron flying? Why aren’t Paul’s visions panning out?) It’s the rare film that can be satisfying on the first watch and even more satisfying on multiple rewatches. Given some of Paul’s visions, I’m hopeful it will be even more enjoyable after subsequent films come out, and the pieces click further into place. The emotional weight of scenes lands even harder as things begin to connect. In one scene, a character must kill another character with whom they had had visions of fulfilling friendship. My first viewing yielded a raised eyebrow for the man who sacrificed himself for nothing. It felt like the weight was increasing during successive viewings: how could this be? How could such explicit plans for the future end like this?
Finally, Villeneuve knows where to land the thopter to give a story broken into several films a satisfying end. (For now.) In the final minutes, Paul makes a statement that might resonate with anyone who’s ever stared down the barrel of hard times and tried to imagine a good outcome:
“My road leads into the desert.”
Written by Eric Roth, Denis Villeneuve, and Jon Spaihts; Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Recommended way to watch (at time of publication): Streaming on Netflix and Max