Slam it to the left, if you’re having a good time. Shake it to the right, if you know that you feel fine. Chicas to the front.
From Spice Up Your Life, written by Emma Bunton, Geri Halliwell, Matt Rowe, Melanie C, Richard “Biff” Stannard, and Victoria Adams
This Spice Girls hit does not feature in Denis Villeneuve’s new screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune, which has a Spotlight screening tonight at the New York Film Festival, although it sure would have livened things up a bit. All the talk of Spice in the movie though got the song stuck in my head.
Villeneuve’s Dune is of course more concerned with an interstellar colonial future of Desert Power in 10191, the year the film opens in, than Girl Power in 1997 (though the movie is populated by some strong female characters). So I’ll drop the Spice Girls talk. For now, anyway.
With stunning cinematography by Greig Fraser, imaginative production design by Patrice Vermette, and some breathtaking shooting locations in Hungary, Jordan, Abu Dhabi, and Norway, Villeneuve’s film is an utterly transporting cinematic experience that’s well worth a trip to a theatre to see it on the largest screen you can (it was shot on IMAX cameras). Yet despite its myriad impressive attributes, including a stellar cast delivering spirited, committed performances, the film does nevertheless lack a little…well, spice.
Set thousands of years in the future when humans have colonized the Known Universe, there’s some beautifully detailed worldbuilding, with Mark Mangini’s sound design, the exoticism of Hans Zimmer’s rich score, and distinctive costume design by Jacqueline West and Robert Morganall all contributing, along with the film’s absorbing visual style. However when it comes to the dialogue, with a screenplay by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth, there’s a sustained imbalance between that worldbuilding, which sometimes feels expositionary, and the development of a compelling narrative. The characters are well-defined though, and despite the epic scope of the movie the plot never becomes unwieldily; partly thanks to the decision to split the source material into two parts, with this film serving as the first.
We meet our young hero, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), just as his noble ruler father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, bringing a soulful strength to the role) and his people are charged by the Emperor with the task of leaving their home planet of Caladan to take over control of the inhospitable planet of Arrakis. Paul has already been learning about the place—the heat and gargantuan sandworms which make life their particularly treacherous for the uninitiated (the desert mice are super cute though)—as well as the ways and the language of the planet’s residing human civilization who have adapted and evolved for survival there, the Fremen.
The planet’s worth to the colonizers comes from its abundance of Spice, “the most valuable substance in the universe”, prized as fuel to power their space travel among other uses, while for the Fremen it is appreciated for its health and mind-expanding properties. Spice is beautifully rendered in the film as a fine gold glittery substance that shimmers in the sunlight.
Ahead of their big move, Paul’s sleep has been disturbed by some troublingly vivid images of Arrakis which he believes might be prophetic. The girl of his dreams is a Fremen warrior named Chani (Zendaya), whom we only meet as things are drawing to a close, although she does permeate the film through Paul’s visions of her and Zendaya’s natural screen presence.
There’s a focus on Paul’s family life, with a touching dynamic developed between father and son, including one scene that unfolds like a teenager coming out to an accepting parent, as Paul opens up to his father that succeeding him as duke might not be what he feels he’s destined for, and his dad telling him whatever he decides to be he’ll always be his son. Whereas Paul’s close bond with his mother, and father’s concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), has been forged in secrecy. Believing that he may be the chosen one, she has schooled him in the mysterious and powerful ways of the Jedi-like Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, involving using The Voice as a form of mind-control.
Although there are a few moments of levity here and there—there’s a nice exchange between Paul and master swordsman Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) with whom he has a close fratneral friendship, about Paul’s svelte frame in contrast to Duncan’s more traditional action hero bod—generally though the tone is a pretty sombre one. While the colour palette, largely made up of funereal black and various shades of brown and grey, although stylish and fitting for the desert planet setting, becomes a little dispiritingly drab after a while.
What helps to keep the film consistently engaging though is its terrific cast, breathing life into dialogue that verges on the dry. Chalamet is captivating as the contemplative lead, both cerebral and emotional, while Charlottle Rampling makes an indelible impression as fiery Truthsayer, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, who tests Paul’s self-restraint and willpower in an intense, standout scene. Credit should go to the Emmy-nominated casting directors Francine Maisler and Jina Jay for some inspired choices and with such consistency in the performances, Villeneuve is clearly a skilled director of actors, something that isn’t always prioritized on scifi movies of this scale filled with effects. When it comes to those effects, there’s a tangible quality to elements like the spacecraft in flight and fast moving sandworms, with no discernible difference in look between what was achieved in-camera by Paul Lambert’s impressive visual effects and Gerd Nefzer’s special effects, while crucially there aren’t any gratuitous FX-filled or action sequences, what’s there always serves to immerse us in the world of the movie.
Towards the very end-of-part-one feeling close of the film, Dune takes on a rather languorous pace and is in danger of feeling overlong with a running time of over two and half hours. Nevertheless there’s plenty to savour here throughout and I’m looking forward to a spicier part two.
Hai, sí, ja. Hold Tight! (Sorry).
By James Kleinmann
Dune will be released in select theaters in 2D and 3D and IMAX and HBO Max on October 22nd 2021. It will be available on HBO Max’s Ad-Free plan in 4K UHD, HDR10, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos (English Only) on supported devices for 31 days from theatrical release.