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.

The Fault In Our Stars Made Me Cry

tfios_soundtrack_cover

Have you ever tried crying surreptitiously on an airplane?  It’s a very strange experience, perhaps doubly so as a man when so much of our society puts a premium on men “being strong” (crying in public is a definite no-no).  I was always a bit weepy as a child, particularly where movies were concerned, and as a boy I was teased mercilessly for it.  I worked hard on suppressing that behavior, until I got to the point where almost nothing could make me cry; eventually, someone who was well and truly pissed with me called me “Ice man” for my lack of affect or reaction (not in a kind way, nor as a reference to young Val Kilmer… which might have been kind?).  I’ve definitely reached a happier emotionally demonstrative balance, but this balance has given me the questionable pleasure of feeling awkward, wiping away my tears while the woman sitting next to me (watching the same movie) was completely dry-eyed.  Oh well.  All of which was a round-about way of saying that The Fault In Our Stars (the movie, not the book which I haven’t yet read) made me cry.

The movie (and presumably the book) is about a teenaged woman who has survived a bout with cancer and come out with less than half the lung capacity she should have, the specter of cancer returning in the near future, and a tendency for her lungs to occasionally fill with fluid without warning.  She’s understandably less than enthused with life around her.  The story, however, focuses on her budding relationship with a boy who is also a cancer survivor, one who has escaped mostly unscathed.  Mostly.

Ok, look, I don’t want to spoil anything more for those of you who hate spoilers.  I’ll leave that for after the break.  Suffice to say, if you have loved ones who’ve gone through cancer (or died to cancer, or saw their loved ones go through cancer), you might find this movie a bit emotional.  There are other reasons for it to be both good and sad, like watching teenagers trying to deal with imminent mortality, but I invite you to find out on your own.  And as I mentioned above, maybe it will do nothing for you.  The lady sitting next to me certainly didn’t seem very effected.

Continue reading

Madoka: Tragically Magical Girls

There’s so much that I want to tell you about this show, but telling you would be a disservice to you and to Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  This show deserves better than that; I might even go so far as to say that it deserves to be watched.  I’m not saying that it is the alpha and omega of anime (or even of magical girl anime), but it is exceptionally well made.  From the standpoint of appreciating artistic storytelling craft, this is a show that you will want to see.

The art itself is of variable quality.  Some episodes received more time and effort than others, in part because of the end of the show’s release schedule coinciding with the 2011 tsunami.  Background facial animation, for example, is minimal regardless of episode, while the last two episodes truly shine with the extra time that the studio took to release them after the tsunami.  But the anime’s visual design is just as fascinating and worth attention as the storyline itself.  The witches, foes of the show’s magical girls, are bizarre and appropriately unsettling, and each feature their own distinctive style of illustration.  More on that later.

However much I liked the studio’s fascinating art choices, my favorite part of Madoka still has to be the storyline.  I’ll try not to spoil you, so let me put it this way: if you want a happy show, you should pick something that doesn’t have schoolgirls struggling to shoulder the burden of protecting the world.  Sound interesting?

Continue reading