During the past week of research for what was fore-ordained to be Denis Villeneuve’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s decades-acclaimed science fiction novel Dune, a creeping sense of introspection hit me. What am I — or for that matter anyone else not well-versed with the world of Dune — buying into?

Is it the rumbling, plangent soundscape of the Hans Zimmer background score, or the artistry of Villeneuve’s craft? Or is it the timelessness or maybe the presumed sacredness critics and fandom associate with Herbert’s source material — a 900-page novel that’s the starting-off point of an ecological, sociopolitical, metaphysical, intrigue set in a galaxy far, far away that’s mordantly similar to our present? Is it all this and so much more…or nothing at all?

If anything, for the uninitiated, a test of wills and open-mindedness are preconditions before you get started — especially when words and visuals that sound Arabic and familiar smack you out of left-field.

So, before the review, here is a brief, near bullet point-ish primer of what you may not see, but still need to understand before viewing any adaptation of Dune — be it the off-throwing David Lynch version from 1984, or the year 2000’s almost five-hour-long miniseries.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune is a slow-burn which keeps most of the pseudo-religious, pro-environment themes and references out of the conversation

Herbert’s novel is set some 20,000 years into humanity’s future. The aliens, which thankfully you don’t see in Villeneuve’s film, are offshoots of humanity. Artificially intelligent machinery, nowhere to be seen, is outlawed by decree after an all-out war called the ‘Butlerain Jihad’; this is when man decided that automata were making them lazy and obsolete.

Religions are condensed into a singularity called the Orange Catholic Bible (alternately: Koranjiyana Zenchristian Scriptures; don’t ask — it leads to a long debate). Traces and terms from old-world religions remain in retrofitted meanings to suit mankind’s new culture.

Earth is a fable, lost to time. The universe is governed by a single ‘imperium’ under an emperor. Space is traversed and habitable planets are colonised after the discovery of faster-than-light speed travel.

Spice Melange, a narcotic substance with healing and life-expanding capabilities found on the desert planet Arrakis — where the Dune movies are set — is a cornerstone of commerce and technological development. “Spice” also enables spaceships to travel intergalactically.

A space guild, run by an evolved sub-species of humans, has a monopoly on interstellar travel and commerce. Sects with heightened metaphysical capabilities exist for the foil of others. One of them are the Bene Gesserit (enunciated as Bani Jesuit), a pseudo-religious sect of all-women spies, nuns, scientists and theologians, who use genetic experimentation, political clout, and religious domineering to further their own agenda of ascending the human race by placing their own chosen one — called the Kwisatz Haderach — in the play for power.

They also use the “voice” — a manipulation of sound frequency that temporarily hypnotises and subjugates a person’s will. Draped in black and secrecy, these women are rightly called ‘witches’ by some.

Two great houses of leadership, the brutal and power-hungry Harkonnen — whose chieftain floats on air like a balloon — and the noble Atreides have an on-going feud.

In all filmed adaptations, the Harkonnen, who have been mining Spice on Arrakis, have not been playing nice with the native desert-dwelling Bedouin populace called the Fremen (Freemen? — a play on words) — an Arab-inspired tribe who have been awaiting a messiah to lead them to salvation.

That messiah will be Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of the kind-hearted Atreides’ leader Leto (Oscar Isaac; brilliant), whose mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson; quite good), is a Bene Gesserit.

If the will of Bene Gesserit were obeyed, Paul shouldn’t have been born for a few more generations. Jessica was instructed to breed daughters to Leto, because it would keep the balance of power and politics from tilting in either house’s favour. Jessica, however, throws another monkey wrench into their plans by teaching Paul the ways of her sect, including the use of the “voice”.

During the scope of Villeneuve’s two-part take on Dune — which I am assuming will only cover a small portion of the actual novel — Paul uses the “voice” to varying degrees of effectiveness. In comparison to the other two filmed incarnations, the use of the “voice” — growly, imposing, a little out of sync from reality — finally feels authentic.

It fits nicely with what the consciously grounded screenplay sets out to achieve. Clocking in at 156 minutes — about 20 minutes less than Lynch’s near-incomprehensible film that condenses so much more — this Dune is a slow-burn.

Villeneuve builds the film like a faintly increasing heartbeat, but keeps most of its pseudo-religious, pro-environment themes and references out of the conversation.

A fleeting scene with pine trees, shots of veiled women praying with mists of incense around them, and passing references to the messiah relay bare essentials of the backstory. Near the end of the film, a 400-foot sandworm — a holy presence on Arrakis that takes down mining ships and anyone else who walks the desert — bursts out of the sand. The shots linger, say little, but look picturesque. Even the one with the worm; in fact, I’ve never seen a worm look this majestic and mystical.

Politics and empathy (the latter, always shorthanded in previous accounts) weighs heavily on the plot. The minimalism is a stark contrast to the near-sacrosanct but badly laid-out adaptation from Lynch which, in hindsight, is also bolder.

This Dune is a different take though — and not a bad call, mind you — but it takes the mysticism of Herbert’s story out of the equation. Whatever’s left is stripped down to match the ambience and production design from Patrice Vermette, Villeneuve’s oft-collaborator.

Villeneuve’s film carries an aura of pictorial grandiosity — kudos to cinematographer Greg Fraiser and his soft-lighting practices — but most of it is a build-up that mostly leads to nothing, and misuses almost its entire supporting cast of characters.

Jason Momoa, who brightens the screen in his few appearances as Pauls’s gung-ho friend Duncan, Josh Brolin playing Paul’s mentor and the House of Atreides weapon master, Dave Bautista as the cruel, screaming Harkonnen villain Rabban and Stellan Skarsgård as the floating Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, get few scenes that aptly convey who they are and what they stand for, but little else.

Even less on-screen time goes to Charlotte Rampling as the Bene Gesserit Reverend mother, Javier Bardem as the leader of the Fremen, and Zedaya — an oft-dreamed vision of fleeting, ethereal beauty, who haunts Paul’s reveries (she becomes his lover in the next film).

Save Mamoa, everyone’s eventual parts are relegated for Part 2…provided this Part 1 of Dune brings in the money for Warner Bros. And it will, because the package — understated in design yet overflowing with cinema-worthy grandness — is just too good of a deal to ignore.

Rated PG-13, Dune is playing now in cinema screens across Pakistan

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 31st, 2021

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