Moviegoers of Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation (Hollywood’s third attempt), of the sci-fi novel Dune have noticed the presence of bagpipes during the latest two-and-a-half-hour epic. The new movie version of Frank Herbert’s best-selling novel has received positive reviews since its premiere last week, with critics praising its stunning visuals as well as the late Hans Zimmer’s other-worldly score – part of which was recorded in Edinburgh. Why bagpipes?
Villeneuve answers the mystery: ‘When you make a movie like this a lot of things are planned and then there’s a lot – a lot – of creativity that comes out of the storyboard process. But there was something missing with the Atreides family’s arrival on Dune. I wanted it to look like Mountbatten arriving in India in 1948, but the thing that was missing was culture. I woke up in the middle of the night saying, “I need bagpipes! Where can I get bagpipes?” Aesthetically, it felt right for the Atreides, and I deeply loved the idea of a lonely melancholic bagpipe player stepping onto the ground, [sounding a note] and then there’s a whole army of bagpipes answering. When I had this idea I ran to my first AD’s office the next morning and said, “I need bagpipes!” There was a long silence. People thought I was mad but I got Hans Zimmer’s respect. He hired over 30 bagpipe players.Bagpipes used well is the good news,. The bad news is, this two-and-a-half hour movie is only Part 1.”
Before launching into a second movie review since allowed back inside a cinema, a word of praise for Edinburgh’s Dominion Cinema. I am indebted to this much loved family owned cinema, one of the few not owned by a cinema chain in Scotland. For my birthday, the Cameron family opened Cinema 2 just for me, which has a full-sized screen but only 20 adjustable seats and a drinks bar. What a treat for a confirmed cinema-goes nevermind a scriptwriter. My eldest daughter organised the event. When I was 18 years old I took my guardian to the Dominion to see Danny Kaye in The Court Jester (1956). She had not been to ‘the pictures’ in two decades. It had one big auditorium. The owner William (Bill) Cameron, waited at the doors in his bowtie and dinner suit to thank patrons as they left. When the curtains opened and the film started my guardian exclaimed, “Oh, how wonderful. It’s in colour!” Now they have three screens. What can I say but offer my fulsome thanks for an indelible afternoon’s enetrtainment in ostentatious surroundings treated like a VIP. To patronise the Dominion Cinema guarantees a warm welcome, a good film sitting in a comforable seat, and a tub of Luca’s ice cream!
To the film: I am not a big fan of science fiction, unless written by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. The genre teaches little about human nature or the human condition. Science fiction in films tends to have a simple message, in the case of The Body Snatchers (1956), released after the McCarthyite Senate hearings, we are warned the commies are coming. In the case of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) – we are advised to look after planet Earth or expect our species to be wiped out but saved by an alien god.
Most cinematic science fiction is about war, mass extinction, one civilisation keen to blow up another to ‘save our people from those other people’. The Star Wars franchise has exploited so many sequels and prequals to be lost in space as a brand. Even its spin-off toys and games are aimed at adult collectors rather than children. The poorest sci-fi stories are basically cowboys and indians in space. In fact, Cowboys and Aliens (2011), is a bizarre combination of cowboys and indians, set in Aizona in the late 1800’s fighting blood thirsty aliens. Hollywood has no scruples about creating a mash-up of genres.
In the hands of a Hollywood studio, science fiction is Boy’s Own stuff, with a love interest thrown in, consummated or not, to keep female cinema-goers happy. Misogyny rules. Stories are usually banal. We get cod psychology and beer mat philosophy – ‘may the force be with you’ now a well-worn cliché. But the genre makes money, loads of it. Of his part in the first Star Wars (1977), Sir Alec Guinness said in my company, “I thought the script was utter rubbish, but I was on a percentage. I do not need to work again, dear boy.”
I choose science fiction films carefully, hoping to immerse myself in another galaxy for two hours. I go to science fiction not for the plots, but to see stars and constellations travelled, and in the imagining of them, new special effects, exciting action and great music. Those elements are there in Dune but in the hands of director Denis Villeneuve a strict paced sombre interpretation of the book’s complicated plot.
I am old enough to have seen the previous version of Dune (sigh!) the first directed by David Lynch a mess of story and a jumble of visuals, not unlike much of his cinematic output. There are at least three editions of Lynch’s attempt – a box set. Villeneuve has taken the line to simplify everything, story, characters, dialogue and visual images. For the most part they work, stylistically cohesive. But in pairing extraneous elements to the bone Villeneuve exposes the book’s flaws, and relies entirely on the charismatic qualities of the central character, played by Timothée Chalamet.
The plot: Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is the young Duke of his house and the result of years of shadowy cross-breeding of a nun-like sisterhood known as the Bene Gesserit. (How science fiction novelists love inventing silly names, always justified as based on real names.) The Gesserit have special powers of control via the pitch of their voices and Paul is one of the few humans who is blessed with these, signalling that he is in some way destined for greater things. Paul’s father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), and the House of Atreides take over the planet Arrakis as orders from the Emperor and they begin to harvest the spice melange, a psycho-stimulating fuel substance that is the most valuable commodity in the galaxy. What they don’t know (but soon realise) is that the Emperor sent them to Arrakis to die and now Paul is the one who is burdened with preserving and nurturing the future of his House of Atreides. Everybody’s plans are turmned upside down by an oily mudbath villain with a culturally muddled name, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, played by Stellan Skarsgård.
Watching this fantasy of honour, betrayal and lots and and lots of sand roll out sees almost three hour pass without any physical discomfert, assuming one has not drunk too much before the movie begins. Villeneuve has chosen a glacial pace to unfold developments, and clothed it in a cold steel blue light until we are taken to the desert regions where the light is blazing, bleaching eyeballs. I do not trust his judgement absolutely having heaped praise on his shot at the helm of the political thriller Sicario (2015), but found his Arrival (2016), so-so, and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), almost the same running time, vastly overblown and empty. Visuals and story hold together better in Dune.
The severity of the first sequences has one wonder why anybody would live in a featureless landscape, and again why the inhabitants would give it up to mine spice in a desert of hilly dunes where nothing lives, except little mice with big ears and ginormous sandworms without ears, overgrown cousins of the worms in ‘Tremors’ (1990). The baking sun’s heat is over 50C most of the time causing humans to wear special suits and rush home to their austere cold dwellings as soon as a day’s work is done. In both habitats I wondered how food grew and who grew it. In the desert we see one occupant watering five mature palm trees, for what purpose is not explained.
The script, which molds and flattens the book’s over-complicated politics into easily digestible chunks, moves along efficiently, giving us morsels of Paul shifting from naive teenager to potential warrior and leader of men. I say ‘men’ because as is the way of Hollywood science fiction, women are relegated to support roles or being as bad as badass men. The women teach Paul to understand his ‘power’ and what he is capable of doing with it. We are back with ‘may the force be with you, pal, sorry, Paul’.
The movie moves rapidly and succinctly through the different terminologies and histories that exist within the story. Paul has visions of the future, specifically a girl named Chani (Zendaya) – the love element, one of the Fremen, an indigenous people of Arrakis – who seems to be important to Paul’s destiny. (Yes, as in Scotland, in the outer-galaxy there are indigenous people.) Paul comes across several Fremen, at first hostile, but in an instant followers, once he has killed one of them in an egregious duel. They understand something about him of which he is unaware. We will know what that is in Part Two.
My problem with Paul as the central protagonist – another Luke Skywalker but attired in tones of grey – is the actor Timothée Chalamet. He plays Paul as a chronically whinging, sourfaced puss-in-boots. I wanted to give him a slap and tell to go get out into the fresh air and play some football with friends, or go hillwaking. At one point I thought he might have been superman’s younger brother, the one that missed out on a sense of humour, charisma, superpowers and a red cape. I hope the miserable performance perks up a bit in the next part, not weighed down by thoughts of his destiny, because it adds to the films heavily portentious mood, doom and gloom always around the next corner. It does not present us with any sort of inspiration things will get better. From where he summons his explosions of fighting ability superior to a seasoned soldier, is anyone’s guess. I mean, what to you give a glum boy like that for birthday – a free ticket to a month’s ceremonies at the local crematorium?
Devotees of the book might find this version too simplistic. I never managed more than twenty pages of the book. It was too artificial and pretentious, Maxim Gorky’s The Lower depths, without the jokes. Dune is efficiently made, large portions of it created in the digital effects studio rather than in ensemble acting. Villeneuve’s signature style for muted color palettes and Nazi-brutalist architecture is fine. Rooms have ceilings thirty feet or more high, and if by the same Albert Speer disciple of an architect, one presumes toilets too.
There are too many spaceship landings, the ships hissing to a halt feet above the ground, and massive pads appear from its sides to settle in the landing area – dramatic pause – followed by a door sliding open, and a wide catwalk descends to the ground, the occupants making a theatrical entrance. The model designer’s helicopters with dragonfly lift-off, fly-and-fold wings, is a nice conceit, but none would survive a minute whirling around a desert, thowing up sand into the mechanical bits, and zipping through giant sandstorms. Advanced cinematic technology and SFX have increased the ability to simulate reality since the days of carboard sets and plastic suits of Star Wars, but the set designers and model builders should avoid stretching credulity too far.
As with Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, the atmospheric score is by provided by Villeneuve’s long-time music collaborator Hans Zimmer. He offers us just enough doubkle base and piano wire vebrato to increase tension but not swamp the visuals. Plaudits for cinematography go to Greig Fraser. He gets the Oscar. I almost awarded the the film three-and-a-half stars because the scenes are derivative of other science fiction tales. Be warned, Villeneuve takes two hours and forty-five minutes to tell the story, and it is only Part One. That is some chunk of his career devoted to one project. Failure could have been catastrophic.
Dune and the latest James Bond No Time to Die, starring the pouty Daniel Craig for the last time, are the two vehicles on which Hollywood studios and cinema chains have placed their bets to recoup revenue from months of closed outlets. Dune will certainly help box office recover but perhaps appealing most to the book’s fans and a new generation of cinema-goers unfamiliar with Nineties sci-fi.
In truth, for Dune, the treat lies in its epic scale.
- STAR RATING: FOUR STARS
- Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Javier Bardem
- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- Writer: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
- Cinematographer: Greig Fraser
- Composer: Hans Zimmer
- Certificate: PG13
- Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?