Dune (2021)

There are those who would call Frank Herbert’s lore-heavy sci-fi novel Dune “unfilmable” but after multiple movie adaptations, it feels like a different description should be found. Much can be said of the previous attempts such as the 2000 SyFy miniseries and the 1984 David Lynch motion picture, although such discussions are possibly best left to the fans. These adaptations are both undeniably large in scale and play into the inherent ridiculousness of the novel, but the latest by Denis Villeneuve only achieves one of these.

Set on the planet Arakis, Dune: Part One sees the House of Atreides taking over the production of the valuable Spice found on the planet from the vicious House of Harkonnen. Duke Leto Atreides seeks to make peace with the local inhabitants, known as Fremen, whose prolonged exposure to Spice has given them bright blue eyes. Plans change however when The Harkonnens return with a destructive vengeance, leaving only the Duke’s son, Paul, and wife, Jessica, to seek refuge with the Freman. This is an oversimplification of events due to the complexity of the worldbuilding present within the story. This is why it is supposedly “unfilmable” as there is simply so much to explain, but it is an aspect that Villeneuve achieves excellently. The background information is easily inserted via natural dialogue and informational tapes watched by Paul. Over 145 minutes, there is a vast amount of speaking but, given the political nature of the story and people involved, it feels natural. Occasionally this dialogue is delivered through well-choreographed fight sequences, of which there are several.

The action is impressive. Hand-to-hand combat feels personal especially with the holographic armour worn by the characters which allow for very close contact. Meanwhile, the assault by the Harkonnens is devastating to witness. Explosion after explosion makes the sheer might of the Harkonnens clear. At least that is when it’s visible. Dune: Part One is sapped of the majority of its saturation, save for the light of explosions and blinding sun. The sands are filled with a certain warmth but that distinct orange glow, present in other adaptations, is missing here. It is most notable during part of the final act, which is set at night and sees the two surviving Atreides trying to avoid a giant Sandworm. These 400-foot creatures are an icon of sci-fi and their threatening presence is felt throughout. So it is ultimately disappointing when their big reveal appears in a shot that might as well be in black and white.

The often frustrating experience of viewing this film is made more difficult by Hans Zimmer’s accompanying score, which is everpresent in the worst meaning of the word. It is a collection of choral voices and heavy dubstep which at times feels like an assault of the senses. It is loud to the point of uncomfortableness and is sometimes misplaced within the story. Sudden death is the kind of thing for which gentle music is generally reserved but here it’s the choir, which is a little distracting. The score takes itself very seriously and the same can be said of the plot. There is a real gravitas to Dune: Part One but it comes across as more self-absorbed than actually important. A film like The Lord of the Rings is equally large in scale but it is grounded by its humanity. It’s a big story about small folk, which allows itself to have fun with its setting. Dune is a large story about important people, but who aren’t larger than life. The David Lynch adaptation tells the same story but it’s having fun, especially with Baron Harkonnen. The Baron is grotesque, terrifying, and extraordinarily full of himself, taking glee in dishing out horrors. Villeneuve’s Barron gets the horror element down but nothing else.

Fundamentally Dune: Part One‘s biggest problem is how safe it is. The Baron’s role is cut down and we’re never allowed to see the true horrors of war, despite there being decapitations in the film. It is full of stellar performances, especially from Oscar Issac and Jason Momoa, but fails on the principle of Dune’s weirdness. This is a weird story, even by sci-fi standards, and as the story progresses it only gets weirder… but it’s difficult to see that story in the universe presented by Villeneuve. Former adaptations may have been flawed, but at least they had personality.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Are Trailers Getting Worse?

In 1964, Bob Dylan released his album The Times They Are A-Changing and unknowingly added a brand new phrase to the public lexicon. Of course the statement itself is true, but I think that it is sometimes taken for granted, and taken to mean that times have changed over the past hundred years or so. The fact is that we see changes happen over the course of a single lifetime, and even in as few as 20 years, especially within the film industry. More specifically, I think it’s best seen in film trailers. The real “moment” of realisation for me was when I watched the trailer for 2020’s Dune (or Dune20). It is worth noting that as of initially writing this, I knew nothing about the story of Dune, first told in the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, but that I knew I should be excited. Dune is, after all, one of the most prolific pieces of science fiction ever written, and has essentially been the basis for this entire genre that I hold so dear. So imagine my surprise when upon watching the trailer for Dune20 I felt this rare sense of ambivalence. This prompted me to do what I think anybody in my position would do- watch the trailer for the 1984 adaptation starring Kyle MacLachlan (henceforth known as Dune84).

Remember that I have no knowledge of the source material at this point, and that I have been underwhelmed by the Dune20 trailer, and then imagine my surprise when the trailer for Dune84 had me hyped. I enjoyed this trailer so much that I watched the film itself that afternoon, and though flawed in parts, ended up thoroughly enjoying it. So what is it about the 1984 trailer that excited me in a way that the 2020 trailer did not?

The first noticeable aspect is that the new trailer is almost half a minute longer than its predecessor, clocking in at 3 minutes and 15 seconds. This is not a massive time difference, but the 1984 trailer was longer than most other trailers of the time. For comparison, the trailers for Ghostbusters and Gremlins were 2 minutes long while the trailer for Raiders of the Lost Ark was a staggering 2 and a half minutes. Newer blockbusters like No Time To Die and Tenet come closer to the 3 minute mark, if not creeping over it. It seems like new trailers either have more footage in them, or longer snippets of footage, and I think that the former is more likely. This footage seems to hold a different purpose as well; older trailers aimed to get across the general tone and plot of the film with a focus on the interactions between characters, whereas new trailers are very Visual Effects heavy. It feels like they are more interested in proving themselves as worthy of your time, and in the case of Comic Book Movies, proving that they have That Particular Thing from the source material that you like. If you’d like my thoughts on that ridiculous notion, I have a piece on it HERE. The standout example of this attempt to be worthy in the Dune20 is the appearance of the giant sandworm, which is of course, accompanied by the Inception BWONG. It simply screams “look, we have the thing and doesn’t it look amazing” and, for the record, it does. But it’s simply not the big deal it’s made out to be. There is this hype to new trailers that simply was not present in older trailers. The slow building music to a crescendo, and the dramatic element of the plot being played up, are a stark contrast to the relatively relaxed trailer of Batman ’89 or Empire Strikes Back. I do understand this shift, and I think a large part of it is that the production that goes on behind the scenes is more heavily reported. You don’t need a trailer to give you the plot or tone anymore because you know all that, you just want to see the one thing you haven’t so far- footage.

The most relaxing aspect of these old trailers was, in my opinion, the voice-over, which has sadly been all but abandoned. Initially, it was everywhere, providing plot details and cast names over the footage which helped keep the runtime of trailers to a minimum. However through the late 1990’s and early 2000’s it was relegated to romantic comedies and children’s films, before being phased out almost entirely. Instead, studios have opted to insert written text into their trailers such as “Coming This Christmas” and “Starring These Actors”. This led to an odd period of overlap in the early 200’s where these pieces of text would appear on screen as well as being read in the voice-over, which was bizarre and wonderful and could only have occurred in the early 2000’s. I think the true death of trailer voice-overs came in 2008, with the passing of Don LaFontaine who had provided vocals for over 5,000 trailers in his nearly 50 year career. LaFontaine was THE voice-over guy, and it garnered him nicknames like The Voice of God, a testament to how heavy his impact was on the film industry. Hollywood never attempted to replace him, and if you wanted trailers with voice-over these days, you are relegated to the YouTube channel Screen Junkies and their series Honest Trailers. They feature the voice of Jon Bailey who is a professional voice-actor and the trailers are wonderfully hilarious reviews of the films themselves.

Part of the reason for a change in aesthetics in trailers is also due to a change in the films they are advertising. Most noticeably is the change in colour palette, especially with science fiction films, which has become de-saturated in recent years. The realistic, bright or sometimes neon colours of the 1980’s have become grey and bland in no small part, I believe, thanks to the popularity of 2008s The Dark Knight, which in turn makes the trailers for these films devoid of colour. This is an aspect that I’m not particularly fond of, because I think it brings a sense of uniformity to the entire science fiction genre, and I dread to think what would happen if it was allowed to affect the entire film industry. Frankly, I think that this dark, gritty tone in an attempt to make your film more adult and “serious” is ridiculous, despite the fact that I have enjoyed many of these films. It isn’t a genre specific issue either, because I think that Hollywood is taking itself too seriously and is being taken too seriously by everyone. I think that everybody needs to take a step back and remind themselves why we have a film industry in the first place, which is primarily to entertain. I think that is the real difference between the trailers for Dune84 and Dune20 – one of them was more entertaining to watch than the other. Trailers aren’t worse, they have simply changed, and I’m sure that in due time they will change again. It’s up to the audience to decide if they will watch or not when that time comes.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer