As huge as cinema can be

The sci-fi epic “Dune” finally starts in German cinemas today. Director Denis Villeneuve shot one of the most spectacular blockbusters of the past few years.

Even before the opening credits begin, before the logos of the studios and companies involved appear on the screen, an otherworldly voice roars through the hall. She ponders dreams as messages that come from within, from the depths. Their terrifying sound drives away any cynicism that could have been shown in the run-up to this mammoth blockbuster work. Denis Villeneuve only needs these few seconds to attract full attention. This is followed by the thundering music of Hans Zimmer, who tries again and again in the course of the film to do justice to the gigantic images with brutal sounds, if not to drown them out.

In general: If you want to talk or write about “Dune”, you are tempted to go straight to its sheer endless audiovisual power. The level of spectacle that Villeneuve stages in “Dune” with giant worms, war scenarios and space travel, the composition of these pictures, for which no canvas can be big enough, will hardly be surpassed this year, perhaps even in the next few years. It is astonishing how the director knows how to astonish with such impressions, when at least since “Star Wars” and Co. such devices, monsters and machines have long since seeped into the collective cinema memory. Villeneuve gives them back a terrifying weight, a materiality, a fascination.

In addition to the cinema premiere, "Dune" also starts on HBO Max
© Warner Bros. Entertainment

Dystopian cinema symphony

Where “Dune” revolves around all kinds of (destructive) experiences of foreignness and territorial explorations, border-crossing points – a defining theme in the director’s filmography – Villeneuve also understands the alien nature of his world, which he brings to the screen with dystopia. There is both admiration and uncertainty for what the human mind has come up with, what may be lurking for us in the future, what shapes and has shaped perspectives in popular culture. When gigantic spaceships rise out of the sea, when machines rattle through the desert that break down the contested drug spice, then in this film these are miracles as well as deadly monsters.

The roar of the engines mixes with that of Hans Zimmer’s music, exhaust gases are blown into the air as a symphony. Villeneuve lets the material do the talking, especially where the script reaches its limits, to tame the jumble of plot branches and characters in a film. The spiritual level, traveling through space and time, dreaming is still simmering subliminally, it does not go beyond mere, rapid assembly of sensory impressions. In “Dune” there is all kinds of tangible things to discover and experience. You might save the rest for later.

Only the first half of the novel

“Dune: Part 1” is what it says at the beginning. Just after halfway through Novel by Frank Herbert, this film sets the cut. Of course, you can’t help but point out what might come next with a few cliffhangers. At this point at the latest, it is again astonishing that the decision was not made for a series adaptation. On the other hand, it is a relief how Villeneuve put the scissors on the source material in his film adaptation. His “Dune” is an altogether faithful film adaptation, which nonetheless does not stubbornly deal with the flood of information in the novel, but rather restricts itself to the essentials.

Whereby “essentials” are easy to say: In this form, too, a large part of the running time serves as an exposition that Villeneuve walks through with his audience. First of all, the conflict that will be waged on the desert planet Arrakis in the dystopian future has to be spread. Where the precious spice is mined in order to keep space travel, trade and communication alive. The natives of the planet, the Fremen, fall victim to this overexploitation. Who is next to be the oppressor?

The evil butcher family Harkonnen was temporarily deposed, but secret plans are already being made to recapture. Stellan Skarsgård mimes the head of the clan in a wonderfully gruesome way: a gruesome monster, a grotesque, oversized body, which is eaten away by greed and bloated in the dark. Meanwhile, his opponents, the new rulers, the house of Atreides, are trying to bring peace to Arrakis. In the end, they fall victim to an intrigue. Son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) becomes a driven figure of Hamlet who has to avenge the death of his father and is celebrated as Messiah by the Fremen with fatal consequences.

The evil Baron Harkonnen takes power.

Clever spectacle

Where today’s cinema likes to look for human sensitivities, for introspection, Villeneuve mainly shows characters who have to play roles in the larger and who quarrel with it. “Dune” is a blockbuster for adults, a highly political and, in a certain way, bulky film. Its exuberant, overwhelming spectacle is suitable as a projection surface on which the great catastrophes of our time can be read. Basically, it doesn’t really matter that part 2 of “Dune” will come. The plot conglomerate of intrigues, struggles and spirituality is not what is interesting about this material.

Rather, it is the carefully and complexly constructed board arrangement, the exposition, in which each party, each figure has to fulfill a kind of proxy status without degenerating into a mere key narrative. The Cold War shimmers through from the historical novel, conflicts in the Middle East, colonialism, religious fanaticism, terror, posthumanism, the climate catastrophe, a complicated new understanding of nature, especially current events in Afghanistan – all of this can be seen from the images of “Dune “Which, in the clash of elements and forms of life, have an immense archaic inherent in them, which the narrative, admittedly, sometimes almost seems to suffocate.

Lost in their own world

What could quickly lead to thematic arbitrariness and overload is precisely focused as such. The sci-fi opera is essentially about the human fear of losing control. Where the global conflicts become confusing, where endeavored diplomacy fails and the environmental catastrophe has long since occurred, there suddenly grows religious zeal, grows the longing for transversal clairvoyance, which actually comes much too late.

In gigantic, sterile and eerie backdrops, characters lose themselves in their own dilemma. In this respect, all of the larger-than-life canvas panels and mood rooms are staged in an extremely consistent manner in terms of style. The Messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach, as he is called in the story, should appear as someone who can think beyond time and space and perceive both anew. One wants to prevent another civilizational collapse in this way. A bit like the counterpart to Amy Adams’ character in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival”. Their utopia experiences its dark downside again here.

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The first big blockbuster of the decade

Ultimately, “Dune” demonstrates the failure of precisely this escapist longing in inciting supremacy. Fascist tendencies lurk everywhere. They are reactivated alone in all the mass marches, also on the side of the supposedly good guys. At the moment when they want to make peace, the destructive reaction of others to the encounter with the stranger is underestimated. A messiah vanishes as a fantasy, he too is just a torn of flesh and blood.

Global, inclusive thinking may once again give way to a personal, destructive ideology of revenge, as long as nature has not yet recaptured its realm. Visions of the young Paul Atreides already announce this in this first part. Dark stuff! Someone who wallows in the current Weltschmerz and powerlessness and finds little liberation, but also something productive and discursive. “Dune” is noticeably missing some background information from the novel that would fill the dystopia with life and breadth and enrich this political network even more. There is not much time left to move the individual parties out of their templates.

The first big blockbuster for the 2020s

Especially in the finale, the film missed a point landing, in which the dichotomy between compliant blockbuster rules and formalistic auteur cinema becomes noticeable. But even after these two and a half hours of appetizer, the film version of “Dune” is a thoroughly fascinating and cleverly arranged cinema frenzy that will still have a lot to talk about. Frank Herbert had created a confused but timelessly explosive panopticon of human error. Despite all the narrative set pieces that are familiar today about hero’s journey and the nobility’s cabal.

Director Villeneuve recognized this very well. With “Blade Runner 2049” the Canadian shot one of the best blockbusters of the 2010s. “Dune” is a worthy successor for the current decade. The countless fans of the template get their first worthy film adaptation, which seems appropriately complex, but not complicated. On top of that, they get captivatingly sensual and intelligent cinema.

“Dune” will be in German cinemas from September 16. As early as September 15th, the film can be seen nationwide in previews. The film celebrated its world premiere out of competition at the Venice Film Festival.

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