Tag Archives: Denis Villeneuve

“DUNE” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Fear is the mind-killer.

There are a few movies that come once in a generation where they don’t feel just like cinema, but rather as raw, immersive experiences that feel equally epic in their scope of storytelling as they do in their visceral visual presentation. Star Wars in the 1980s is one such example. Jurassic Park in the 90s is another. Lord Of The Rings in the 2000s. The Avengers movies in the 2010s. Now here comes the newest science-fiction epic in Dune, and if it isn’t destined to become the next decade-defining blockbuster, it definitely feels like it should be.

Based on Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction saga, Dune takes place in the far distant future where different houses fight for control over different planets in the galaxy. One of the most sought-after planets is the desert world of Arrakis, which carries an element known as spice that allows for interstellar travel, making it the most valuable asset in the universe. The House of Atreides is gifted the planet of Arrakis to harvest the spice for the good of all the houses, but in the process, they get caught up in a violent conflict between the Fremen, the native dwellers of Arrakis, and the Harkonnen, a vicious race of savages that seek the power of the spice only for themselves. Now trapped on the world of Arrakis, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) needs to find a way to adapt to the harsh environment surrounding him and harness the desert power of Arrakis.

When I heard that Denis Villeneuve was remaking Frank Herbert’s classic tale of “Dune,” I nearly fell out of my seat. For those of you that are unaware of it, “Dune” has been hailed as one of the most important science-fiction novels of all time, right alongside the likes of “Anthem”, “Ender’s Game,” and “1984.” To see a large-scale adaptation of one of the most essential books ever written would have any reader giggling in their seats, where I admittedly found myself not too long ago.

Yet despite Denis’s cinematic prowess, I found myself a little hesitant to accept a live-action “Dune” remake. For one thing, “Dune” had been visually adapted twice before, once in David Lynch’s 1984 film and once in Frank Herbert’s TV show in 2000. Neither one really reached the fascination or intrigue that the book inspired and were really kind of silly and gimmicky in retrospect, although I do find their amateurish quality slightly endearing. For another thing, “Dune” had been largely considered an unadaptable story, with its dense lore amounting to a massive 412 pages.

Granted, it wasn’t the first book to be considered “unadaptable.” Yann Martel’s “Life Of Pi” was largely considered unadaptable, as was Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.” Yet, both were made into magnificent movies by Ang Lee and Zack Snyder. Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s a sure thing. Indeed, it means that whoever does end up tackling the project has a massive, massive challenge ahead of them, one that may mean breaking up the book’s plot into multiple movies.

Thank God that Denis Villeneuve was a brave and competent enough filmmaker to take it on, because he fulfills every bit of the book’s lofty expectations and then some. The first thing you notice with Dune is how immersive it is: visually striking, audibly haunting, and emotionally stirring. The very first line of dialogue you hear in the movie isn’t even human: it’s Harkonnen, and its rich, deep voice eerily echoes the words “Dreams are messages from the deep.”

Immediately after that, we’re swept into an engrossing display of Arrakis: its beauty, its danger, its dry, devastating heat, the invaluable spice, and the people willing to fight and kill and die over it. What follows from there is an engrossing and absorbing experience that completely and fully immerses you in its characters, lore, and setting in a rare display of intrigue, excitement, and fascination.

I’m not just talking about merely watching the movie play out on screen. Sure, you see the vast landscape, the colossal spaceships, the endless void of space and its planets, the massive explosions that blow up on battlefields and mining sites. But the film is so much more than merely seeing the images on screen: you experience them. You feel the sun rays beating down on you, the dryness in the air as the desert sands of Arakkis parch your mouth, the wind from the space thrusters blowing against you, and the heat from explosions radiating off of your body as the shockwave blows you off of your feet.

See, in a rare marriage of visual and audio mastery, Dune drops you in the middle of Arakkis and forces you to feel the loneliness and isolation of its characters. Movies have a bad habit of superficially showing you what characters are going through instead of engrossing you in the moment of what they’re experiencing. Dune places you right alongside House Atreides and forces you to try and survive the dangers of the desert alongside them. Not since Avatar has a movie immersed you so vividly into its lore and setting.

The production of the film is a technical marvel, from Greg Fraser’s vast and expansive cinematography to Joe Walker’s expert editing to the eerie and striking visuals to the mesmerizing score by Hans Zimmer. Even the all-star cast is masterful in their roles, with Timothee Chalamet shining the most as a fallen prince torn between two different destinies.

Dune is a rare example of a perfect picture. Yes, a perfect picture. I literally would not change a single thing about it. Some viewers may not appreciate Denis Villeneuve’s trademark slow-burn style of storytelling, but that’s because of their personal preferences as movie watchers, not Denis’ craft or ability as a filmmaker. To think that years ago, we questioned how he would handle his first science-fiction picture with Arrival, then how he would revive Ridley Scott’s long-cherished franchise with Blade Runner 2049. Now he has made Dune, and its legacy will surpass both of those pictures. I can’t wait for the sequel.

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“ARRIVAL” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Paramount Pictures

Changing the things we can, and confronting the things we cannot.

There is a double meaning to the title Arrival, although you wouldn’t know it if you haven’t seen the film. On the surface, Arrival looks like another science-fiction thriller, unraveling an extraordinary world to an ordinary one, quietly observing how one reacts to the other. What the film turns into as it draws to its closing moments is a question of mortality, a search for purpose in life, and how we face the inevitable.

Confronting the life-long question of “Are we alone in the universe?”, Arrival starts on a bleak day where alien ships land on different continents all over the globe. Their landings seems to be without pattern or purpose, but whatever their motivations are, they don’t confront the human residents with hostility. Their ships just rest there, floating vertically over the horizon, awaiting brief interactions with the humans watching in awe below.

Enter Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an experienced linguist who is notable for her translation of thousands of languages. Louise is recruited alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) by Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) to find out as much as they can about Earth’s new visitors, and if they establish communication, find out what they’re doing here. As Louise delves deeper into the aliens’ minds, she makes a discovery so shocking that will change the course of the human species forever.

One of the most unique elements of the film is how intelligently it approaches its strange premise. Director Denis Villeneuve, who directed the deeply unsettling films Prisoners and Sicario, approaches Arrival not as a typical science-fiction blockbuster, but instead as a quiet observation of the extraterrestrial, how human beings react to the unknown, and how we build bridges to learn foreign communication. I didn’t know what exactly to expect when going in to see Arrival, but after watching it I know one thing for certain: it is definitely not an action movie. A thriller, maybe. But the film doesn’t excite you as much as it educates you, and that immersion in knowledge is where the movie finds its niche.

Let me break down one of the movie’s key scenes to show you what I’m talking about. In one exchange between Webber and Louise, Webber tells her to ask the aliens one question: “What is your purpose here?” One sentence, five words. Seems simple enough. Yet when Louise breaks it down, she explains how complex the question actually is to those unfamiliar with the language, from differentiating between a question and a statement, to identifying the meaning behind “what”, to whether “your” is plural or singular, to even defining what the word “purpose” means. To us, these are simple concepts because we’ve been educated on these since we were children. But when communicating with someone or something else that has spent their entire lives learning another form of communication? How do you even begin to bridge that gap?

This film’s exploration into our interpretation of language is one that is only seldom observed in both mainstream and independent cinema alike. The fact that Villeneuve translated it into a science-fiction film is sheer brilliance on his part, as he draws comparisons between the humans and the aliens in the film to the real-life encounters we’ve shared with our own species in the past. Think, for instance, the first time the pilgrims landed in America and met Native Americans for the first time in the 1620’s. Spaceships and aliens aside, would their interactions really have been that different from what we’re seeing in the film?

This is a great film from Villeneuve: a thoughtful minimalist masterpiece that evokes the same eeriness and existentialism as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey does. If there is any weakness, it is the drudging tone and pacing that follows the film everywhere it goes. We as moviegoers are so used to movies that are quick-paced, fast-tempoed and always watching something happen on-screen. It’s not usual to find a film as slow-moving, contemplative, and uneventful as this. In that lack of excitement, viewers might have a hard time immersing themselves into such a sublime picture when they’re so used to watching flashy effects and movement light up the screen.

And yet, I don’t fault Arrival for this choice of tone. Not one bit. That’s because the pacing isn’t a mistake on its part: it’s intentional. If real-life aliens ever did come to our planet, our first instinct wouldn’t be to shoot at them like a Michael Bay movie. No, we would try to establish communication with them and find out what exactly they want from us. We would be surprised, confused, scared, maybe intimidated all at once by their presence. In embodying our emotions in such a situation, Arrival’s slow pacing is validated due to the reality the film tries to encompass, not the sensationalism that every other Hollywood blockbuster contrives to.

Arrival is much more than standard science-fiction. I would classify it as science-philosophy. It poses questions, leaves its answers open to interpretation, and watches as two different species push past their cultural boundaries so they could try and understand each other. And after watching all of these events unfold on the screen, we are forced to ask ourselves the most important question of all: if our knowledge expanded beyond that of our human capabilities, would we use it to change what we previously couldn’t? The answer will shock you.

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