Grand Scale, Small Voices – Dune

As I mentioned in October’s edition of “This Film is Not Yet Watchable,” the new version of Dune is that ultra-rare film that not only clears the bar to pass my personal “Remake Rule,” it offered multiple reasons to outright endorse the effort, at least from what I could see in the trailer. You have visionary director Denis Villeneuve – who has yet to make a truly bad film – helming the project. The intent is to split the story over two movies, because Frank Herbert’s novel has just too much going on to contain in two hours, as David Lynch learned in the 80s. The epic scale and visual effects looked tremendous, even from the compact confines of a YouTube clip. And finally, it boasts an incredible ensemble cast of A-listers for even the smallest roles, all fully committed to bring this grand saga to life like never before.

So yeah, it didn’t just pass the initial eye test, it went above and beyond. But the question remained of whether or not the film would live up to the hype, or be a massive flop where that trailer was the only real quality. Both options, as well as a spectrum in between, were well within the realm of possibility. I’m happy to say that I very much enjoyed the finished product, and for the most part, it delivered exactly what it promised. It’s not the greatest thing ever, but in an age where big VFX movies can look like terrible cartoons more often than not, and where almost every remake/reboot feels like an exercise in cynical late-stage capitalism at best, I’m more inclined to laud anything that comes off as an earnest attempt at art.

The story should be familiar to anyone who’s read the books or seen the first movie. Thousands of years in the future, the desert planet Arrakis is home to a substance called “spice” or “spice melange” (thankfully in this version we largely just stick to the former), which enhances human ability and makes space travel efficient. House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), is tasked by the imperial government to take over spice harvesting operations from House Harkonnen, led by the cruel Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård). Leto believes the mission will offer a rare opportunity to improve diplomatic relations with the native Fremen, led by Chief Stilgar (Javier Bardem), and expand his family’s influence in the empire. Little does he know the transfer of power is only a ruse for the empire to foster a coup with the Harkonnen to eliminate House Atreides entirely.

Meanwhile, Leto’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is training in multiple skills for the time when he must take over as head of the house. He is taught combat techniques by military men played by Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin, while his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) instructs him in the mystical ways of her matriarchal order, known as the Bene Gesserit, under the watchful eye of Gaius Helen (Charlotte Rampling). Paul is clever in the extreme, but doubts his strength and has visions of a Fremen girl called Chani (Zendaya) who will help him towards his destiny. When the betrayal is set in motion, and Dave Bautista leads Harkonnen troops to retake the planet, Paul and Jessica must dodge imperial soldiers, Harkonnens, distrustful Fremen, and Arrakis’ deadly sandworms to not only find safe haven, but turn the tide and save their family.

Every single person I’ve just mentioned has either been a part of a billion-dollar cinematic franchise, an Oscar nominee, or both. It’s insane to get this many bona fide superstars together on the same set where only about three of them have any real relevance to the main plot at a given moment. It’s incredible to see how effortlessly they all fit into their roles and how easily they cede the spotlight for the sake of the overall saga. Even in more thankless, doomed roles like the Duke – which is not a spoiler if you know basic story structure; the moment a father shows affection for his adult son in a genre tale, you know he’s toast – Oscar Isaac brings all the energy, gravitas, and high-grade acting ability he did to his starring vehicles like Ex Machina and Inside Llewyn Davis. The same holds true for the entire cast.

And not for nothing, but it can easily be argued that the real “star” of the movie is its own sense of scale. Denis Villeneuve knows how large this universe is, and he doesn’t waste a single frame in keeping the audience aware of it. Even in the more intimate scenes, you can feel almost viscerally how big the world around them is. From the vast desert vistas, to the gargantuan ships, to the creeping menace of the sandworms, he wants you to always be able to see this massive environment, right down to the gaping maws of the worms themselves more resembling eyeballs than mouths. He knows how rich and expansive all of this is, which is why the film is split in two. Normally this is a terrible idea and a transparent attempt to make audiences pay twice for the same movie. But here, Villeneuve goes to great lengths to make sure the experience is immersive as possible, while still keeping the narrative self-contained enough that if this were to somehow flop (spoiler, it didn’t), everyone involved could still be satisfied that they told a complete story.

It’s even more impressive when you consider how much Villeneuve was able to accomplish on a relatively humble budget. The production team created eye-popping visuals that looked remarkably lifelike in at least 95% of the shots (even the ones that were entirely CGI), highly-detailed sets and props that you could almost reach out and touch, and costuming that gave the film an otherworldly feel while still staying grounded enough as to almost be normal (for example, you could easily see Zendaya modeling her costume as part of a summer catalog). Throw in this A-list cast and you’d think the price would be through the roof. At $186 million, it doesn’t even crack the top 75. Villeneuve is so good at managing people and conveying an artistic vision that he accomplished more with his budget than Disney does with twice as much money. Hell, as satisfying as Avengers: Endgame was at times, it had $356 million to work with, and most of the effects in that movie looked fake as shit.

That’s really telling. It’s not how much money you have, but how you use it. A lot of the big budget blockbusters tend to just throw as much cash as they can at technology no matter how bad it looks. Villeneuve, on the other hand, knew exactly where to focus his efforts, how far to go to make sure everything looked genuine, and trusted his people to execute his vision, all for significantly less than his counterparts.

From my vantage point, the only real annoyance was one I had with the original as well, the whispering. I’m guessing I don’t suffer from misophonia (disgust and anxiety at human noises), but I do get irritated when I hear sounds that aren’t in their natural registry, like when a commercial ups the volume on someone typing at a keyboard, ASMR, or Billie Eilish’s entire interpretation of the word, “singing.” It annoys me, and in extreme cases, causes headaches. As such, I’m not a fan of magnified whispers in films and TV, nor do I appreciate it when an audio mix is so off that background noise or the ambient score overpowers soft speech to the point that I have to read subtitles for English dialogue.

This happened a LOT in the original film. With the exception of Patrick Stewart, the first movie felt like 80% whispering, and it got old, fast. Here, it still exists, though it’s not as obtrusive. But even so, it’s noticeable and off-putting at times. As much as I love her, Rebecca Ferguson is the biggest offender, apparently deciding that “mysterious” or “ethereal” was supposed to mean “inaudible.” Chalamet goes a bit too far with it once in a while himself. I had planned on seeing the movie both at home on HBOMax and in a large format theatre to compare the visual experience and the size differential, but before I could act, it was already out of IMAX in favor of Eternals (review coming soon), so I only had the domestic screening to go on. I’m guessing that in such a huge room the acoustics would have been a bit better in balancing the whispers out, but in my bedroom, it was something of a chore to constantly go back 15 seconds to attempt to suss out what people were saying at times, before giving up and just turning on the closed captioning, which took me out of the moment.

But even on a small screen, I could see just how massive this movie is, which is an amazing achievement. It’s rare when the pieces all fit together like this for a truly ambitious bit of high concept, effects-driven cinema, but Denis Villeneuve proved once again up to the task. Creating a better visual marvel with half the resources of actual Marvel is impressive in its own right. Doing it with a well-paced story and top notch actors to boot makes this a rare feat.

Grade: A-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you see the original, and how does this compare for you? Do you associate sandworms more with this franchise or Beetlejuice? Let me know!

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