“D U N C: Part One” (2021): Where There’s a Worm, There’s a Way (Review)

· Films & Video Games

★★★

The moment DUNC was finished, I really wanted Part Two.  That was the problem.

It is a testament to the skill of Denis Villeneuve, the production crews, Hans Zimmer, and the sound producers to make such worlds, planets, environments, and surfaces come alive in a grandiose fashion that mirrors (albeit more by suggestion than by exposition) the complexity of the dynastic families and political rivalries.  That, perhaps above anything else, is the opening challenge of adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune.

But those critics and fans making comparisons to The Fellowship of the Ring need a return to Middle Earth journey.  Fellowship is, despite the few threads hanging to be picked up in the sequels, a complete film with a central set of themes and a journey that concludes with the characters learning lessons in the hardest way possible.  The mere fact that it contains an extended flash forward sequence when Frodo looks into the Mirror of Galadriel does not mean that the film itself was simply an opening of the door to the story.  It addressed everything it had established and attended to its own dramatic needs first like they were the most urgent matter in the world, and the tragedy at the heart of it was realized beautifully even in that very Galadriel sequence.

So as good as DUNC is, it’s more like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, or The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Mockingjay, Part 1, or even The Matrix: Reloaded.  It is, of course, better than all of those by a wide margin if for no other set of reasons than the epic establishment of all of the crucial details to the hero’s journey and political resolution of Dune, and the infusion of energy throughout all of it.  It is also better than them due to how it aggressively dives into its sprawling ambitions – creating conflicts from perspective, framing Arrakis as both a Martian-like world with Middle Eastern wonder and a trial gauntlet for the arrogant and unproven,  as well as for featuring a mother/son relationship whose mostly unspoken complexity insists upon itself in all the right ways.  Even some of the things that weren’t clear to me, like the bagpipe player who announces an entrance and is never seen again, or the reveal of an alive Baron Harkonnen that took away what I thought had been a key element in the lead up to establishing Dave Bautista’s Glossu Rabban for the next film, seem like shriveling criticisms by comparison to how exciting it is to be introduced to all of it.  In other words, while the experience merits a viewing on the biggest screen possible, the actual story featured in it has about a dozen different beginning points which ironically make it just as perfect for home streaming or even YouTube.

The story itself features the planet Arrakis, a desert world home to the spice of life in the galaxy, in the 102nd century.  From the perspective of the native Fremen (Arab & South Africa based nomadic warriors), the world has been the target of ruthless colonialization and plundering of its resources by greedy outsiders.  From the perspective of anyone who isn’t them, the Emperor is either pitting two rival families against each other on a planet whose natural dangers will clean up their mess without galactic fallout, or simply wants the main family House Atreides to be wiped out by its rival (and the previous ruthless steward of Arrakis) House Harkonnen by giving to House Atreides stewardship of Arrakis and acting like it’s a great honor and opportunity.  In seeing both the risks and rewards of this new assignment, Duke Leto of Atreides (Oscar Isaac), having amassed his power on his home world by air and sea, attempts to ally with the Fremen to control the planet. He is sincere about this.  Against this backdrop is a hero’s journey starring Leto’s and his consort Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson)’s son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), who has been having specific premonitions related to a vocal and mental power he has due to the circumstances of his birth.  Initially caught up in the larger ordeal, eager to help, and sidelined, he travels through the desert with his mother to complete his father’s mission.

I know it probably sounds like I just gave away everything, but (1) I didn’t and (2) it’s Part One, and you always feel that while watching the film.  Some might call it a pacing problem, but I’d call it more of an emotional one.  There are, in essence, three key rules to an epic: big story, big setting, big emotion.  That third rule is the most difficult of all because the emotions of both the characters and the audience must match the scale and size of the rest.  Blade Runner (1982), The Big Trail (1930), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970), The Longest Day (1962), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), How the West Was Won (1962), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) The Lord of the Rings, and almost anything by D.W. Griffith all provide a roadmap for this.  You don’t ever want to feel like an epic is holding back on you – a sin that Avengers: Infinity War committed with its treatment of the Hulk.  And even a story with such cold science fiction as was seen in Herbert’s novel, the grim overtones here can’t help but draw it back a bit.  For example, the first scene with Paul and Leto is robbed of the warmth it deserved before everything goes to hell because of the dialogue, which feels like highlights from the book rather than an emotional context clue.  A scene later on between Jessica and Leto has a similar problem.  It’s deeply necessary, yet it feels sudden because their romantic chemistry is on a different planet in a different story.

Based on the above, you might think I have a problem with Oscar Isaac, but I don’t.  A little young, but he’s an excellent stoic performer and all the stronger when he doesn’t have to pretend to be a bro with Stormtrooper Finn.  In fact, the acting across the board is quite good, especially from Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica.  It feels like her character experiences the greatest changes.  A scene where she reveals to her son the circumstances of his birth is almost cartoonish in how it is framed as a cold and distant relationship by having her shout the exposition from afar during a storm.  But the most touching moments with them are in sign language, and I loved them all the more because of it.

The film is at its best when there’s a worm nearby.  They move like whales through the sand, casting ripples like underwater torpedoes, and opening their mouths like underground hurricanes.  The Godzillas of Arrakis; they’re an alpha-predator species that act like its protectors, and in a single moment exhibited both benevolence and wrath in a way I found utterly mesmerizing.

What we have in the end, therefore, is a stunning, visually magnificent picture with some of the best use of money and foreign locations in modern filmmaking.  Unlike No Time To Die, which has an extended Rambo-style sequence in a Norwegian forest where the scenery is impossible to appreciate, the scenes on Caladan look like the best shots that could ever be taken from Norway, and ditto for everything else.  It’s just an incomplete one in terms of its story and its themes, lacking most notably a sense of closure.  Its keenest dramatic needs aren’t given what they deserve even if it’s impossible to do it without doubling the length of the feature. And the greatest victim of that is Paul himself, who is given clues as to his destiny, but no agency of his own to realize it.

Prologues are funny that way.  All that incredible visual work just to say “this is only the beginning.”

– Vivek

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