Movie Review: “Dune”

Towards the end of our honeymoon, my wife and I stopped by the Alabaster Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. It was my first time visiting a mosque, and I honestly had little idea what to expect. Based on years of pop-cultural representations, I think I expected a dark, cavernous dome, illuminated mostly by light shining in through the intricately carved grates and lattices along the walls.

I did not expect the dozens of globes of light hanging suspended from the ceiling, like stars in a firmament, giving the whole structure an altogether otherworldly ambiance. To crib from Oswald Spengler, the mosque was a perfect exemplar of the ancient “prime-symbol” of the Cavern: the universe depicted as a space of perpetual contestation between mystical light and primordial dark.

That image kept coming back to me as I watched Denis Villeneuve’s new take on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic. Villeneuve’s adaptation is, like the mosque of my imagination, a thoroughgoing play of light and shadow—but it is a drama with no stars to gaze toward, no beauty or sublimity to inspire awe. His is a “Dune” that is visually striking and finely crafted, but devoid of transcendent fire.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the influence of Herbert’s 1965 novel: the mix of operatic battles between factions, intricate worldbuilding, and enigmatic spirituality was a powerful influence on “Star Wars,” among countless other works in the genre. Contemporary readers, I imagine, might find the original book a bit of a slog—I certainly did—but there’s no denying its enduring power. Indeed, even a cursory overview of the plot reveals just how many themes Herbert bequeathed the sci-fi tradition.

In the far future, interstellar travel depends on the substance known as “spice,” harvested only from the inhospitable sand planet of Arrakis. As “Dune” opens, the venerable clan of House Atreides—helmed by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac)—is dispatched to Arrakis to oversee the spice extraction effort. In so doing, they replace House Harkonnen, led by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård). Along with Leto come his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet). Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, an all-female order with the power to mind-control others though the supernatural “Voice,” and she has trained Paul to also wield this weapon.

House Harkonnen does not take kindly to this displacement, and following a violent betrayal, Paul and Jessica must flee into the desert. There they hope to find the indigenous “Fremen” people of Arrakis, who have learned to master the planet’s monstrous “sandworms” (imagine something that looks like a cross between a lamprey and a vacuum cleaner).

Let me make one thing clear from the first: Villeneuve is, and always has been, an amazingly talented filmmaker. In his hands, Arrakis comes alive in a cascade of painterly scenes—the lights of aircraft descending through the fog of nighttime battle, the thick vortices of sand that surround an emerging sandworm, the whir of wings of a dragonfly-like “ornithopter” scudding across the dunes. Villeneuve has always had an uncommon eye for mesmerizing visuals—one thinks of the night-vision shootout of “Sicario,” the mist-shrouded heptapods of “Arrival,” the giant spider of “Enemy,” and the sensual neon advertisements of “Blade Runner 2049”—and “Dune” is no exception.

Moreover, “Dune” represents a remarkable success at translating a sprawling, unwieldy novel into an accessible narrative. Villeneuve has always favored character-driven, vaguely downbeat conclusions (see, again, “Blade Runner 2049” and “Sicario”) over big CGI-drenched blowouts, and that tendency serves him well here given that this “Dune” is merely part one of two. True, the movie ends at an unexpected juncture, but I didn’t feel cheated.

So with all that in its favor, what’s not to like?

What holds “Dune” back from genuine greatness is less a matter of what it does than of what it doesn’t do. And what it doesn’t do, in short, is enchant.

Villeneuve’s best movie, “Prisoners,” is a taut, morally gray crime thriller that pushes Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal to the very limits. Like a good David Fincher flick, it’s a movie that’s grim, somber, and utterly suffused with slow-burning menace. And it’s always seemed to me that something of that same harshness, that same sense of resignation to the abject pitilessness and indifference of the cosmos, leaks into everything else Villeneuve directs. 

For a film ostensibly about a scorching desert world, “Dune” feels positively chilly. Maybe it’s the “Dunkirk”-esque Hans Zimmer score throbbing along beneath the surface, or maybe it’s the desaturated color palette, or Chalamet’s vaguely Edward Scissorhands-esque affect. Maybe it’s the thick, staticky bass effect that triggers whenever someone uses the Voice—akin to the “Force” sound effect repeatedly used by J.J. Abrams in the most recent “Star Wars” films—which hints that spiritual reality is first and foremost power, rather than a kind of grace.

But I think the biggest issue here is simply Villeneuve’s refusal to let his audience experience something like wonder. There’s nothing here like the “first flight” sequence of “Avatar,” the binary sunset of “A New Hope,” or the crashed freighter of “Alien”; the closest we come is a quick ornithopter excursion over the sands, which rapidly turns into a tense rescue mission. Yes, some of the glimpses of spice blowing amidst the sands are picturesque, but these shots are few and far between, fleeting exceptions to what’s otherwise a crushingly solemn endeavor.

I’ll withhold final judgment, though, because I may have been wrong all along. Perhaps there’s a subtle point being made here, that the aesthetic austerity of “Dune: Part One” represents in a sense the mindset of colonizers—those incapable of apprehending a landscape without seeing endless raw material for extraction. Perhaps next time around, the audience, with Paul, will learn among the Fremen how to see beneath the surface of things, to the true beauty underlying all. But I’m skeptical. Something in Villeneuve’s directorial constitution seems profoundly resistant to the cinematic language of eternity and symbols and cosmic order that Lucas and Spielberg and others have so masterfully deployed over the years, and it’s hard for me to imagine that changing in the next couple of years.

None of this is to say that “Dune” isn’t a good time at the movies. Go see it, preferably on a large screen. As popcorn entertainment goes, this is A-list stuff.

But don’t expect the next “Star Wars.” Magic like that is far from view here.

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Posted by on October 30, 2021 in Sci-Fi


Movie Review: “No Time to Die”

And so an era of James Bond—an era unlike any other—draws to a close. 

“No Time to Die” caps off Daniel Craig’s celebrated run as 007, which began with 2006’s “Casino Royale” and swept Bond into the uncharted waters of a character-driven narrative spanning five films. For longtime fans of the series, this was an unprecedented turn, one that eschewed episodic storytelling in favor of a single comprehensive epic. But I don’t know many Bond aficionados who would describe it as unwelcome

And against that backdrop, “No Time to Die” is a triumphant conclusion—one that, even if it doesn’t quite hit the heights of “Casino Royale” and 2012’s “Skyfall,” at least comes close.

(It’s impossible to talk about the most interesting things in this movie without venturing into spoiler territory. You’re forewarned.)

We pick up with Bond and love interest Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) in the stunning Italian city of Matera, shortly after the conclusion of 2015’s “Spectre.” For the first time, Bond comes close to laying the ghost of lost love Vesper Lynd to rest, once and for all. But following a booby trap and an armed ambush, all prospects of domestic bliss evaporate. Bond—incorrectly believing himself betrayed by Madeleine—storms off alone. A five-year time skip follows.

Naturally, that’s not the end of Bond and Madeleine’s story. When duty calls, Bond is pressed back into action.

This time around, the major threat is microscopic killer robots, along the lines of Michael Crichton’s excellent novel “Prey”—specifically, nano-bots capable of identifying and destroying individual targets on the basis of their distinctive DNA sequences. Individuals can be carriers of nano-bots without themselves being destroyed, but these nano-bots can spread instantly upon physical contact with a target—allowing carriers to serve as the unwitting assassins of others.

Like “Spectre,” “No Time to Die” suffers from an increasingly overburdened internal mythology, one that struggles to reconcile plot threads from five films obviously developed without a clear destination in mind. The sinister Spectre organization itself, introduced just last film, is unceremoniously dispatched early on. Christoph Walz’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld gets a memorable, Hannibal Lecter-style cameo, but doesn’t otherwise have much to do here. Instead, this time around the principal antagonist is Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), a one-time victim of Madeleine Swann’s villainous father, who has some murkily genocidal designs involving the nano-bots. None of this quite coheres into a satisfying arc for the saga’s villains, but so be it. Can’t win ‘em all.

More importantly, “No Time to Die” succeeds because it thrusts James Bond’s character into unprecedented dramatic territory—but in a manner that feels right and satisfying. Over the course of the Craig years, audiences have watched this Bond develop from a callous killer to an avenging angel to a man of profound principle, a man capable of truly serving ends beyond himself. All those years of development pay off here. In perhaps the film’s best and most unexpected twist, Bond learns he and Madeleine have a five-year-old daughter—Matilde. And it is her for whom Bond must fight in the film’s climax.

That climax, though, takes an unexpected turn. In the course of a gruesome final struggle with Safin, Bond is infected with a cluster of nano-bots coded to destroy the DNA of Madeleine and any relatives—ensuring that even if he survives, he will never be able to physically touch his love or his child again. The thematic point lands with the force of a hammer blow: after so many years of pushing others away, believing the worst about them, and killing those in his path, he is finally, poignantly, made toxic.

Bleeding, with nanobots coursing through his veins, Bond makes his way to the highest point of the villain’s lair as the island is devastated by missiles, killing him instantly as the dawn rises. This Bond is indeed capable of redemption, but that redemption comes at a price.

It’s a finale that serves as a particularly rich echo of Craig’s first 007 outing. The third act of “Casino Royale”—before things go horribly awry—promises Bond a kind of blissful hedonism: a life spent sailing around the Mediterranean with Vesper (Eva Green) and leaving duty and obligation behind. The coda of “No Time to Die” offers him something quite different: the responsibilities of fatherhood and the love of a woman he has learned to trust, not merely desire. In “Casino Royale,” Bond sails off alone, suffused with rage and bitterness; in “No Time to Die” it is his family that ventures out to sea without him. Bond has, in short, learned to be the one who stays behind, who sacrifices himself in extremis for his loved ones.

Is this a betrayal of the character, of the idea of the suave superspy who can escape from any snare? I don’t think so. Rather, it suggests there is room within this role, this archetype, for genuine growth. And moreover, a Bond who can die is a Bond whose subsequent adventures take on new intensity, because we don’t actually know what will happen next onscreen.

Regardless of your feelings on the film’s conclusion, there are plenty of other reasons to appreciate “No Time to Die.” In the able hands of director Cary Joji Fukunaga (who helmed the first and best season of “True Detective”), this installment is one of the most picturesque Bond films of all time. From frozen lakes and fog-shrouded Norwegian forests to missile silos that look like demonic temples and chemical plants that look like enchanted forests, Fukunaga’s aesthetic sensibility is positively breathtaking (rivaled only by Roger Deakins’s cinematographic work on “Skyfall”).

Fukunaga’s action scenes are also a cut above the norm for a Bond flick. A gun battle in Cuba that teams Bond with an MI6 operative (Lashana Lynch) and a talented CIA ingénue (Ana de Armas) is a particular standout, pairing combat with humor in quintessentially Bondian style. Similarly memorable is an extended tracking shot in which Bond, in “John Wick” fashion, takes out a host of henchmen while ascending a staircase in Safin’s base. At any rate, they’re far superior to the “Bourne”-aping shaky-cam fights that dominated 2008’s “Quantum of Solace.”

By this point, most serious Bond fans will have already made the pilgrimage to see “No Time to Die” on the big screen. If perchance you’ve been holding out, suffice it to say that this installment thrills like no other. It’s that rarest of things: a pulse-pounding action flick with a genuine heart beneath all the explosions and gunfire.

“Spectre” left me cold. But I can’t wait to revisit “No Time to Die.”

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Posted by on October 25, 2021 in Contemporary

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