Dune (2021)

Dune (2021) reminded me why I like seeing movies in theaters. It was CINEMA, in an incredibly all-caps fashion. It was larger than life: it pulled me out of my socially distanced seat, even made me forget that I was wearing a mask, and caught me up in its vastness.

There are certainly movies that benefit from being seen on the big screen, movies that benefit from having a good sound system. So many MCU blockbusters fit that description. I’m sure I’ve said that of other movies here before.

But it’s rare that I watch a movie that feels designed for that largeness every step of the way. It’s rare to watch something that so welcomes dwarfing its human actors against massive backdrops, that feels ready to swallow up everyone on screen at once. It’s even more rare for these movies to go beyond dazzling spectacle, and to evoke awe.

I really liked watching Dune. I LOVED it.

I’m not yet talking about the story, or the characters, or any of that (though I do have thoughts there). I’m not covering the soundtrack at all, which deserves its own essay. Nor am I talking yet about how Dune is problematic, and one of my problematic faves. I’m just talking about the experience of watching Dune on a big screen, with a proper 7.1 sound system that I could feel in my chest. And part of that, part of the magnificence of the movie and how it drew me in, comes down to a set of decisions they made that (I think) were brilliant.

First of all the camera work, and especially the groundedness of the camera, keeps the viewer in the scene. The camera never moves in ways that feel unreal, even when its location is obviously impossible: the vacuum of space is graced with a slow pan, while an ornithopter in flight is followed either from the ground, or with what feels like remarkably steady helicopter work. Like David Lynch’s 1984 Dune, scale and distance and perspective still play a crucial role as we see just how small the characters are in their setting—a visual cue that parallels the ways in which so many people in this movie, full of hopes and dreams, are rendered insignificant and cast aside.

This movie’s visuals say, loud and clear, that the world is bigger than any human. It’s bigger, and it doesn’t care. Arrakis doesn’t care about you. The Padishah Emperor doesn’t care about you… and if he does, he may simply wish you dead or broken. The story is Shakespearean, as Stephen McKinley Henderson (Thufir Hawat in Dune 2021) points out. I agree, though perhaps a little differently: it’s a vast tragedy, with many people who die on the sidelines without ever achieving what they’d wished. Few people are as large as they might think themselves, few as important. The movie’s visual language hammers this home.

But the visuals also feel incredibly real. That feels unusual for a big genre movie with showy fantastical elements. So often, those big “wow” moments are both impressive and just slightly off. Dune manages to convey a sense of reality and presence that I can only compare to seeing the original Jurassic Park in theaters. As I discovered when I dug deeper, this is because the Dune production team (like the JP team) paid attention to minute detail, working extremely hard to make every little bit fit together—and work together—into a greater whole. It paid off.

For one, Dune paid incredible attention to lighting color and quality. They developed a new background screen which the production team called a “sand screen,” replacing the common blue and green ones. A warm brown, the sand screen better matched the lighting-color of their set locations, and allowed reflected background lighting to paint the proper colors on the actors’ faces, thereby enhancing the visual immersion (at the cost of slightly harder work for the CG artists). This meant that even when working with CG’d-in sets, the actors were still lit more like they were shooting on location.

Speaking of shooting on location: Dune captured their outdoor shots with real sunlight, even when working in front of screens. And when they had explosions in dark scenes, they filmed in darkness and cued pre-positioned lights to illuminate the actors’ faces in time with the explosions. What’s more, they used literal tons of real sand in many of their blowing-sand shots (material that gave their CG artists something to work with while touching up the scenes) and took footage of helicopters blowing up desert dust clouds for additional reference.

Heck, they also weren’t afraid to let those dust clouds obscure their (beautiful, intricate) prop and set designs. There were shots where I could barely make out the vast scenery, only see hints of it by well chosen lighting and inference. The production team understood the value of not showing everything, of letting the viewers fill the gaps. And while they may have covered up some of the gorgeous art they’d created for the film, the effect was magnificently immersive. Watching a lone figure buffeted by wind and rain below the landing lights of an otherwise pitch black ship, or seeing Harkonnen combat vehicles hidden by billowing sand and lit only by the flares of their own missiles, I felt more pulled into the scene. And the movie pulled my focus to the elements it really wanted to show, rather than overwhelming me with too much detail.

They did an excellent job.

Okay, now for some of the other stuff.

First, if you’ve read the book you’ll know what’s happening. If you haven’t, I can’t help you. It’s been so long since I read the book, this story has wormed its way through my brain. I doubt I can judge whether it does a good enough job of including an uninformed audience.

That immediately opens many cans of worms. Dune, the novel, was published in 1965. That age, and the divergence in social assumptions that go with it, is palpable when you think about the book. And despite the little ways they’ve changed things, the movie is pretty faithful to the original text.

But in a lot of ways, the 2021 film does a good job of concealing the cultural temporal disconnect. While it (like the source material) is painted up like science fiction, the movie’s genre feels far more like grim feudal intrigue fantasy, in space. That gives it some cultural leeway I think it might otherwise lack. Like an interstellar Game of Thrones, with some technology that reads like magic (or an excuse to follow Frank Herbert’s personal Rule of Cool), it’s clear that this world has some different cultural conventions than our own. And, of course, we return to it being a Shakespearean story—murderous feudal politicking in space.

Now, I feel the movie made the right choice by leaning into the fantasy intrigue genre, because I think the book was there all along. For me, the book fits far better into the genre conventions of epic fantasy a la grim feudal political intrigue than the genre conventions of science fiction. (I feel similarly about Star Wars: it’s space fantasy, rather than sci fi). It feels like the movie is being even more faithful to the text than I’d realized was possible.

I don’t think this will save them from all the ways in which Dune is problematic. I think it already hasn’t. This movie is less problematic than its source text, but not without issues of its own.

But it does look like they’ve backed off some of the ways the original text was troublesome, and laid some groundwork (that I don’t recall from the books) that builds context for other ways in which the original story was problematic. I have no idea to what extent that will cushion the blow, though, because… this was just Dune: Part One. Time to wait another two years, probably.

I’ve now written enough without a clear outline that I’m losing track of my thoughts. Suffice to say I think this is an awesome movie, in the archaic and classical “awe-inspiring“ sense of the word. It’s absolutely worth watching if you can see it on a big screen with big sound. If you can’t, and you’re a Dune fan, you should still watch it. If you’re not a Dune fan… yeah, I’d still recommend it, provided you know what you’re getting yourself into (I’m not going to write about that here and now, this is already too long). But do try to find a safe way to see it on something large. And ready yourself for taking in visual and auditory spectacle.

Because wow. This movie is a lot.

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Space Sweepers (2021)

I couldn’t help but think of Cowboy Bebop. I’ll mention Planetes too, but I still haven’t seen it so I’m only making a topical connection.

See, Space Sweepers shares so many aesthetic and tonal qualities with anime that I would be remiss not to point it out immediately. If you already know you don’t enjoy less-rigorous, more-adventurous space thrillers with lots of crunchy techno-bits slathered on for that sweet flavor, but without the density of “totally realistic” sci-fi… this probably isn’t the movie for you.

If, on the other hand, you want a dramatic space thriller with some cyberpunkish themes and just enough emotional moments to make me sniffle, check out this movie.

Why? Because even with my few quibbles, Space Sweepers is still a touching story about grief, struggling to make ends meet, and the humanity of those society has cast aside. It’s flashy, it’s fun, and despite the rough bits it has heart.

Oh, and *damn* do I enjoy the cast and the polyglot melange of this space future. The faces on-screen are incredibly diverse, and absolutely helped sell me on this movie’s setting. Sure, all the main characters are South Korean, and the big antagonist is played by Richard Armitage, but whoever was in charge of casting actually paid attention when they were asked to get a *broad* range of different people.

Having said that, I do have to add one of those quibbles I’d mentioned: this movie’s acting quality and character development are unevenly distributed. I feel like that goes hand in hand with the anime themes I mentioned above, but it’s more noticeable when watching real live humans.

The core crew feel solid to me, and I don’t feel like the script screws them over. Bits of character background and motivation seep out throughout the movie, and I *like* that. We’re not immediately clobbered with each character’s backstory. I already mentioned Cowboy Bebop, but this is yet another place where I see a connection.

Unfortunately, the villain is a tad bit cardboard. I know that Richard Armitage can do better, so I can only assume that either there was more material which never made it to the film’s theatrical edit, or the script never allowed for the character to really shine. Similarly, the whole movie is peppered with some oddly stiff moments where bit-characters talk (mostly in the background) and simply feel… contrived. Like, it made sense for someone to say a thing, so the script included it, but the delivery didn’t quite land for me.

It wasn’t a big enough issue to pull me out of the movie, or even make me dislike it.

My other quibble: there are a few plot twists that feel contrived at best. They didn’t break the movie for me, but the logical holes were… pretty big. Big enough that I simply had to embrace them as part of the story and move on—which was more difficult for me than overcoming my quibbles with the acting. I think what gave me the most trouble wasn’t the deus ex machina, but the fact that the film could have covered it (or at least justified it better) with a few small changes earlier on. It felt like an unforced error.

Of course, knowing the little I do about movie production, I realize that I may be wildly off the mark. Who knows how many variations the script went through, how many of those last scenes were cobbled together from different shoots, or how much of their budget they’d run through by the time anyone saw the same plot holes I see? It’s not like making movies is simple or easy.

Anyway. I liked this movie. If you know you like its genres, I think you’ll like it too.

Mining my boarding school experience for Cesium Deep

This one is going to be a little more personal. Also a little more disjointed.

I went to a mixed boarding / day school for high school. I was there as a boarder.

My time in my dorm was both great and awful. It’s part of where I’m drawing inspiration for the story I’m writing about Cesium Deep.

When I say that my time in my dorm was great, I mean that I met and made friends with some awesome people. I came to love living in a community, and felt close to some of my dorm mates in a way that is hard to explain. Some of those friendships existed because we were teens who were able to live in the same space and share our passions and interests in ways that I hadn’t really thought possible before boarding school. Sometimes, living in a dorm was a hell of a lot of fun.

But some of those friendships existed because we survived the awfulness together.

I don’t think it’s surprising that no one else from my dorm came to our 10th reunion.

When I say that my time in my dorm was awful, I mean that Continue reading

Trouble Writing Cesi

When I was first writing Bury’em Deep, the editor I was working with through my mentorship program asked me to write scenes from inside Cesi’s head. She wanted, ideally, for the book to include sections or chapters from Cesi’s perspective.

It was a good idea, and Continue reading

The Music Behind Bury’em Deep

This is an incomplete list of the songs and artists that built the soundscape I tried to stay in while writing Bury’em Deep (and editing and rewriting it, and, well, you know).

The initial bulk of the music was industrial, with a few other genres tossed in. I think there was something about the frequently wordless, highly rhythmic, often distorted quality of that music that drove my sense of living inside a spaceship. My vision of those spaces was not the JJ Abrams Star Trek Apple Store feel of white, glass, and lens flares. It had more in common with World War 2 era submarines. Any gleam or shimmer came from the false realities of glasses’ environmental skins.

The next place I took musical inspiration from was synthwave. Something about the way those sounds combined with the more grating and grinding industrial music fused the feeling of large heavy machinery with complicated computers. Better yet, the synthwave often had a driving beat as well, something that mimicked and pantomimed the rhythms of the industrial tracks that had first sparked my imagination.

This means that alongside Front 242 (Tragedy For You), lots of VNV Nation (specifically tracks with fewer words), Foetus (Love, and (Not Adam)), and Ministry, I had heaps and piles of tracks from Makeup and Vanity Set (everything they made for Brigador, plus at least five other albums), Perturbator, Lazerhawk, Kavinsky, and Waveshaper.

Then, the more idiosyncratic additions and odder pairings, the ones that I couldn’t ignore:

VNV Nation’s song 4 A.M. flows seamlessly into the choral version of Barber’s Adagio for Strings that you find at the opening of the Homeworld soundtrack. I later discovered Edward Higginbottom’s choral version of that Adagio for Strings. I used the rest of the Homeworld soundtrack too.

I listened to two remixes of tracks from Star Control 2. They were Starbase – Under a Red Sky, and Property of the Crimson Corporation.

I listened to Holst’s Planets, and Clutch’s eponymous album. I cycled through several tracks off Tomoyasu Hotei’s album Electric Samurai (especially Dark Wind and Howling). I listened to SomaFM’s space mission station, and Science from the album Sounds of GE. Sometimes I listened to Orbital, primarily their Blue Album and In Sides. I used tracks from Receiver, by H Anton Riehl, and NASA’s Symphonies of the Planets: Voyager Recordings.

Sometimes I listened to one album or track on repeat for hours on end. My musical desires grow strange(r) while I’m writing.

If you have any of that music, I suggest playing it while you read the book. If you don’t have the book, I suggest listening to that music and imagining what it feels like to live trapped in a tin can in the far reaches of our solar system.

What year is Bury’em Deep set in?

What year is it? Why don’t I say?

Well, for one thing I don’t want Continue reading

Nutrient Paste in Bury’em Deep

I don’t ever state this explicitly in Bury’em Deep, but food for spacers is more complicated than simple nutrients. In fact, Continue reading

Setting Material for Bury’em Deep (and sequel), pt. 2

This one’s a close follow up to last week’s post. Again: rough draft material, only partial, subject to change. This time, I’m diving deeper into the Rhean intelligence apparatus, and what influence it’s had on Rhea and beyond! Continue reading

Setting Material for Bury’em Deep (and sequel)

While I’ve been working on writing a sequel to Bury’em Deep (yes, I changed the name), I started working my way through some background material that seemed important. This is all rough draft material, only partial, and subject to change… but I thought you might enjoy some of the details! Read on for tidbits of Rhea’s history and its place in the politics of Saturn-space. Continue reading

Light Years, by Kass Morgan

LightYears.jpg

Light Years is a fine book, nestled deep in the readily-identifiable heart of its genre. It never Continue reading