Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Cinematic Grammar of Prophecy – Dune: Part One

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune (2021).

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One, co-written with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, has many shortcomings. But it succeeds nevertheless because it gets the most important thing right: the mood. Namely, the mood of prophesied destiny. And it’s hard to imagine a more fitting adaptation.

Frank Herbert wrote his far-future science fantasy novel with various allegories in mind, powered by the narrative force of the prophecy of the Kwisatz Haderach, or Messiah, arising from the ashes of imperial palace intrigue involving stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis (or Dune) and its prized spice that enables hyperspace travel. While sacrificing many things, such as concision and character depth, this design grants the book a unified tone: portentous, momentous, expository.

David Lynch, not having read the book when he took on the 1984 adaptation, apparently didn’t see this, so his film is a (notably Lynchian surrealist) drag, and it would have been so even without the meddling of producer Raffaella De Laurentiis. Villeneuve’s talents are uniquely suited to this project. He’s said that he needed to make Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) first to prepare, and it shows: Dune has the scope and production design of the latter, the narrative theme and score of the former, and the exposition and crude characterizations of both. (It’s only Amy Adams’s performance in Arrival that gives her character nuance.)

Dune is a triumph of production design (by Patrice Vermette). Everything is ginormous and angular, giving the sense of a spacious prison house – the courtyard of the palace on Arrakis especially feels like the Green Zone in U.S.-occupied Baghdad. Adding to this effect is the limited physical acting: outside of fights, people just stand and talk, and protagonist Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) does even that with minimal affect, at least until the moment he grows into his twin birthrights of Duke and Messiah.

That brings us to the theme of prophecy and destiny. In other words, time, on both the personal scale of Arrival and the vast one of the fate of the universe. The best scene is the build-up to the Gom Jabbar test, a secret trial by fire. Paul, the test’s subject, can’t be told what it is, so his mother, Lady Jessica (an astounding Rebecca Ferguson), and the royal doctor (Chang Chen, speaking Mandarin), who do know, can only give vague warnings in hushed yet dire tones. Fear of the unknown indeed.

This personal scope is expanded in two ways. Paul keeps having visions that one by one prove true; a scene in which he uses knowledge thusly gained to ask for aid affirms his authority, and Chalamet beautifully displays newfound mettle while Ferguson’s face reveals Jessica’s awe and, at the same time, the sense of loss that parents feel when they realize their child is now grown. Not every scene can be so full of import, however, and there are a number of ineluctable bridging sequences that Villeneuve makes good use of by attaching to them Hans Zimmer’s score, this time less droning than in, say, Inception (2010), and with more Orientalist percussion and vocals. Either through music or dialogue, we’re always reminded that what’s happening before our eyes are only signs and wonders – the truly important story is yet to come. Fittingly enough, the film ends right after the indigenous Fremen accept Paul as one of their own, and just before they teach him how to ride one of the massive underground sand worms that devour anything traversing the sands of Arrakis.

With the dialogue so occupied by theme, there’s no room for much else. The film has a handful of expository devices, but most of the exposition is crudely stuffed into the dialogue. Even so, the storyworld is so complex that much on screen is left unexplained, inadvertently making the world feel lived-in, much like that other (unofficial) adaptation of Herbert’s novel, Star Wars (1977). The actors work hard to give naturalistic line readings, and Jason Momoa’s stand out in particular: as Duncan Idaho, the military leader of House Atreides, he speaks in gruff spurts, toned down by warm affection for the royal household. And I appreciated seeing Momoa clean-shaven. But as far as characterization goes, line readings are basically all the actors have, with the notable exception of Ferguson’s Jessica, consumed with worry about her son and the destiny for which he may not be ready. Ferguson’s performance perfectly balances the two awesome emotions of prophetic knowledge and maternal ferocity, sometimes switching between them in between lines. In contrast, Josh Brolin’s emotional transition is much clunkier.  He plays the lieutenant commander who trains Paul when Duncan is away and has to switch, in the same line, from avuncular warmth toward Paul to the martial fury needed to train him for war.

Altogether, what we have on our hands is an exemplary handling of time and prophecy, those most abstract of narrative themes, held together by dialogue salvaged by earnest acting, and filler scenes buoyed by visuals and the score. It’s the best thing Villeneuve has done yet.

CJ Sheu has a PhD in contemporary American fiction from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog reviewfilmreview.wordpress.com, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.   

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