Dune: Part One (2021)

So, guess who’s seen an ACTUAL NEW FILM? Thanks to a certain worldwide pandemic, Warner Brothers decided to hold off releasing Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part 1 from November 2020 to October 2021, by which time they’d also made the decision to release all their films for 2021 on HBO Max as well as in cinemas (such ones as are still open, anyway). This is a move that has made a lot of people unhappy, particularly Villeneuve, who had a bit of an auteur hissy fit about how his film was made for BIG SCREENS and how it should really only be seen that way, and how ultimately the chances of the film and the putative franchise to make money would be harmed and piracy would be the only winner.

His first point is one Christopher Nolan’s made before, and to that I say: if you’re serious about the primacy of the cinema experience, you probably shouldn’t allow your films to be released any other way. Go on, forgo the additional revenue from home video and streaming sales if it matters that much. But they won’t, of course. However, his point about piracy is a good one. I know cos, frankly, I kind of prove it myself.

I saw a friend on Facebook observing how terrible it was that releasing one of the year’s biggest films on streaming six weeks before it was due in Australian cinemas meant that super high quality rips of said film in full high definition and 5.1 surround sound were easily available. People here didn’t even have to rely on shitty camcorder bootlegs for once! And it is indeed a dreadful situation, and I fully availed myself of it on Monday night. I should probably be ashamed of myself for contributing to the problem, but I don’t, let’s be honest. (Sorry, Denis.)

Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel follows efforts by David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky and John Harrison. Of these, the Jodorowsky version famously never got made and I haven’t seen the TV miniseries version Harrison directed. I’ve seen Lynch’s version, though, and I hate it. I first saw it in its re-edited TV version some time maybe in the late 80s or early 90s, and frankly I found it kind of baffling, and that was the version that was supposed to make more sense than the authorised Lynch version. I then saw the latter on TV many years later, having decided that it had been long enough since I’d last seen the film, maybe it was time to reappraise it. I decided then that the film was quite possibly even worse than its reputation, and if I hadn’t been following the plot summary in the film’s Wikipedia entry while watching the film, I would’ve been lost.

I then saw it a third time in a fan edit version by Michael Warren which has become kind of notable in its own right, he made it by taking the existing versions plus deleted scenes from the blu-ray and DVD releases. Basically, since Lynch found the whole experience so godawful he refuses to revisit the film, we have this three-hour version instead, which for me at least achieved the remarkable feat of making the film even worse. And I don’t blame Michael Warren for that, I just think there’s nothing you can do with the David Lynch version short of incinerating every copy of it.

By this point I was, frankly, scared of reading the Frank Herbert book, and so I didn’t actually do that until 2018. And I liked it more than the film, but that wasn’t really saying much; I think it gets off to a pretty clumsy start, settles into a reasonably engaging midsection then kind of collapses in the last part, and Paul Atreides is a pretty unappealing main character throughout, which is a slightly fatal problem. In short, I thought it was good, but absolutely not the monument of 20th century literature it generally seems to be viewed as.

So, to finally get to the point, and having established that I’m not exactly a megafan of the book or the previous cinematic adaptation of it, how does the new version go? Well, it looks astonishing. And given that it cost $165m, it had better look astonishing. But I’m sure that on a really big cinema screen it will look absolutely jaw-dropping. Brilliant use of real locations combined with excellent CGI, looked fantastic on my TV so the cinema experience should be a hundred times better. Which is good, cos the visuals are the best thing about the film. The cinema experience will be a lot louder too, cos the sound was overpowering on my TV and I don’t actually consider that such a good thing, Hans Zimmer’s score is so overbearing and strident that it got on my nerves pretty much all the way through.

And whatever size of screen you see it on, Villeneuve’s film has the same problem the book has, i.e. that Paul is really kind of crap. He goes from whining about the Bene Gesserit having made him a freak to envisaging himself not long afterwards without much trouble as the next emperor. Timothee Chalamet doesn’t sell him for me, either. Actually, none of the characters in the film are of much interest and, really, if it weren’t for the previously mentioned amazing visuals, I probably would’ve found the whole thing kind of insufferable. Leonard Maltin said of the David Lynch film that it was joyless and oppressive and long, and although this version is a lot better, you could still say the same thing about it in many ways.

Now, the length of the thing is an interesting issue, cos I didn’t realise until recently that Villeneuve was making it as a two-parter. Whatever else can be said for or against his film, he knew that compressing that book into one film wasn’t going to fly and he insisted on making it in two parts, and now he’s also envisaging the second Dune book (Dune Messiah) as the third part of a trilogy. I knew this by the time I watched the film, of course, so I knew what to expect, and I think the pacing of the film actually worked given that it was just the first half of something that will eventually be about five hours long. I just wonder how more casual viewers who maybe didn’t realise this was just part one might feel once they get to the end and find there’s still half a story to be told.

But, if you were a casual viewer, that’d be the least of your worries. Villeneuve has made his film for fans like himself (filming Dune has been a lifetime ambition for him) more than the general filmgoing audience, and, frankly, if you’re going in completely cold with no knowledge of the story from either the book or at least the Lynch film, I feel it’s going to be harder work than it was even for me, cos there were still times in this film I was kind of perplexed by what was happening cos Villeneuve doesn’t exactly communicate some things very well.

Again, I should emphasise I was watching a 720p mp4 of the film recorded from HBO Max that I obtained dubiously. Maybe that wasn’t enough. Maybe the cinema experience really is necessary. Maybe the proper overwhelming experience most other people seem to have had can only come at the cinema. Maybe it’s like what Kim Newman has said about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, another film I’m frankly not a fan of; any time he’s seen it at a cinema he thought it was one of the best films ever made but any time he’s seen it on video he thought it was merely OK. Maybe I’d like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune better at the cinema. And since I’m almost not going to see it that way when it finally comes out here, I’ll never know, and I can live with that. I think in the end I just hoped for too much from this film, something it could never really deliver cos the problems go right back to the source material. I don’t suppose I’ll bother watching the TV miniseries…

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