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Posts Tagged ‘Denis Villeneuve’

The buzz has been building around Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune for some time now, even taking into account the fact that this is yet another of 2020’s big films which finds itself emerging into the world rather later than originally intended. This is no doubt partly because Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 have given Villeneuve a claim to the title of the most important science-fiction film director working in the world today, but also because, well, it’s Dune, isn’t it?

If you know your science fiction history, Dune isn’t just one of those things which dominates the landscape, in many respects it is much of the landscape. The DNA of the book, and of the early attempts to film it, have been filtering into the culture for decades now, all without a genuinely satisfying screen adaptation ever being forthcoming. The TV miniseries from twenty years ago is now largely forgotten, while the 1984 David Lynch film, though retaining a cult following, is at best a horribly flawed and deeply confused take on the material.

Comparisons with The Lord of the Rings follow Dune around like seagulls after a trawler, but it’s easy to see why Villeneuve and his team decided the book could only be done proper justice as a series of films, rather than a single movie. Hence (although not billed or advertised as such) the new film is essentially Dune: Part One.

The story unfurls itself on a suitably epic scale, although it is ambitiously thin on the kind of non-diegetic exposition that has become such a cliché of this kind of film – there is no opening crawl, or prefatory monologue, or even much in the way of captions explaining where the various scenes are taking place. We are often in the distant future, when the known universe has reverted to a form of techno-feudalism and vicious and bloody galactic politics occupies the various Great Houses and the organisations that connect them.

As the film opens, the House of Atreides, who seem to be a generally benevolent lot, have just been assigned the job of overseeing the desert planet Arrakis, source of the most important substance in the universe – a psychedelic spice which facilitates interstellar travel and thus allows the empire to function. Control of Arrakis grants immense power and wealth, but are the Atreides being handed a golden opportunity or a poisoned chalice? Certainly, the arch-enemies they are displacing, the brutal House of Harkonnen, don’t seem that worried…

Nevertheless, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) sees this as an opportunity, for Arrakis is also home to fierce native warrior culture, the Fremen, who he is keen to make an alliance with. His son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is also excited to visit this new world, partly because he is having strange precognitive dream concerning the place. Paul is disturbed to learn that he is the product of generations of selective breeding to produce a superhuman with immense psionic powers, and that the people of Arrakis have been primed to recognise him as their long-awaited messiah or Mahdi – but is this a destiny he is prepared to accept?

The challenge in adapting Dune for other media is basically one of balance: the richness of the setting is fundamental to the novel, but it’s how one retains this without swamping the story so it grinds to a halt or becomes unintelligible. The decision to chop Dune in half for the new film is probably a good one (always assuming the concluding movie gets the green light): the narrative gets room to breathe, retaining all the key incidents of the story, while at least a sense of the detail and texture of the wider universe is still communicated.

Of course, something’s still got to give, and one does receive only a vague impression of some elements of the background. There are a lot of characters, and some of them are in the film only quite briefly: Dave Bautista, for instance, is near the top of the bill as Count Rabban, but probably only on screen for less than ten minutes. The same is true of many others; the film is more about striking miniatures than in-depth characterisations, though Jason Momoa is more prominent than one might expect as the Atreides warrior Duncan Idaho and the same is true of Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet-Kynes (yes, the Progressive Agenda Committee have had a word).

The whole film feels like it’s operating on a greater-than-human scale, anyway: there are immense vistas, ships the size of small cities hanging in the sky, colossal sandworms lurking under the surface of the deserts, and more. As a spectacle it is never less than impressive, the visuals backed up by an extraordinary score from Hans Zimmer, almost more like musique concrete in places than a conventional piece of orchestration (that said, the soundtrack album also contains a Pink Floyd cover, which can’t be a coincidence considering that over forty years ago the band were on board to provide the music for an earlier attempt at the novel).

There’s a huge amount to admire about Dune, but perhaps that’s the problem with the film – it’s a film which impresses and provokes admiration, but never really excitement or delight.  Frank Herbert himself thought he had identified fourteen separate clear points of identity between Dune and George Lucas’ own tale of a young man on a remote desert planet discovering his own mystic heritage and battling the forces of a corrupt imperium, but this film doesn’t have the same kind of swashbuckling, eye-catching verve: it’s much less a piece of pulpy space opera. Villeneuve works so hard to keep the story focused, relevant to contemporary concerns, and naturalistic that the sense of wonder which is a central part of the appeal of science fiction is never quite there when you’d expect it to be.

Nevertheless, this is a film which easily eclipses its predecessors and is likely to define this story in the minds of generations to come – especially if the concluding episode, which we are assured is almost a done deal, matches the virtuosity of this one. I am very curious to see how Villeneuve handles some of the more metaphysical aspects of the story, and the epic spectacle which to some extent is only promised at here. Perhaps no movie of Dune could ever really live up to expectations, but this one comes impressively close.

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In all my years of going to the cinema, I have seen an enormous variety of Dicks. I have seen disturbingly malformed Dicks. I have seen insignificant and forgettable Dicks. I have seen the occasional moderately impressive Dick. But, I feel it must be said, currently showing on a screen near you is what’s almost certainly the biggest Dick in the history of cinema, Denis Villeneuve’s very expensive and equally lengthy Blade Runner 2049. (I use ‘Dick’ in this case to mean a film derived from a novel or short story by the SF writer Philip K Dick, and also to facilitate some very cheap double entendres.)

It is doubtless time for gasps and glares as I once again reveal that I’m lukewarm at best about the original 1982 Blade Runner. What can I say, maybe it was the circumstances in which I first saw it, which was split in two at either end of a school day when I was 14, after it showed in the graveyard slot on TV. Subsequent viewings didn’t do much to make me reassess the movie, either, not least because in the meantime I read the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which has that atmosphere of quotidian weirdness which for me is quintessentially Phildickian, and which is nearly always the first thing that disappears when Hollywood gets their hands on one of the master’s works.

At least this means I have not spent the last couple of weeks having kittens about the prospect of having one of my very favourite films smeared by an incompetent reimagining (sometimes it feels like all my favourite things have already been screwed up over the last few years, anyway; hey ho) – I know several people who have been in this unenviable position. Given the way the last couple of Alien prequels worked out, I suppose they had a point, but then I was never much of an Alien fan either.

Anyway, off we went to the cinema on the first day of release for Blade Runner 2049 (yes, I missed the first 2047 sequels too, ha ha). The obligatory (and rather dauntingly detailed) prefatory captions fill in the somewhat complicated goings on which have occurred since the first film, which was set (somewhat quaintly, these days) in 2019, but basically things are much the same: the environment and society are going to hell in a handbasket, and everyone has become somewhat reliant on synthetic people known as replicants. The Wallace Corporation, which manufactures the replicants, has naturally become immensely wealthy as a result, but their use is controlled and unauthorised models are hunted down and ‘retired’ (i.e. violently terminated) by specialist cops known as blade runners.

Our hero is KD/3:6-7 (Ryan Goosey-Goosey Gosling), a blade runner who is himself a replicant (presumably from a production run where the eyes didn’t quite turn out symmetrical, but I digress). During a routine case, K stumbles upon evidence of something almost unbelievable – the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth. The supposed inability of replicants to reproduce themselves is one of the things that enables the uneasy settlement between the synthetics and natural people, and K’s boss (Robin Wright) is very clear that K is to make very certain the now-grown replicant offspring is found and made to disappear, even as the head of the Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto) and his factotum (Sylvia Hoeks) take an interest of their own in the investigation. One of the few leads that K has is a connection between the mother and another, long-since-vanished blade runner, named Rick Deckard…

Yes, as you’re doubtless already aware, Harrison Ford does indeed reprise his role from the original movie (he’s not the only one to do so, but he gets most screen-time). That said, he doesn’t show up until quite late on, and when he does it is as a fragile, largely passive figure, only ever waiting to be found, or interviewed, or rescued. The focus is only ever on Gosling as K (even so, this is possibly not the vehicle for the star that some of his fans may be hoping for – a couple of vocally keen Gosling devotees were sitting in the row behind us, but left halfway through the film), and the actor is customarily good in the role.

That said, this is a notably accomplished movie in most departments, with Villeneuve handling a reasonably complex SF narrative with same kind of skill he showed with Arrival last year, and a hugely impressive piece of scoring and sound design from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The combination of striking images and music is quite immersive, and (I suspect) will not disappoint fans of the original film.

And it faithfully continues the themes and ideas of the original film. The most recent trailer doing the rounds makes Blade Runner 2049 look rather like a non-stop action blockbuster, but this is not really the impression given by the actual movie. Instead, it is a combination of thriller and dystopian SF, handling some very Phildickian ideas to do with the nature of what it means to be human, the whole concept of authenticity, and the ethics of treating people as property. One expression of this comes in the form of K’s girlfriend (Ana de Armas), who is a self-aware hologram, and the film’s treatment of their slightly unusual relationship. (We agreed this element of the film clearly owed a huge debt to Spike Jonze’s Her.) Again, the SF content is handled deftly and reasonably subtly.

I can really find very few grounds on which to criticise Blade Runner 2049: it may even impel me to go back and give the original movie yet another chance. And yet I still find this film easier to admire than to genuinely like, and I’m wondering why – it doesn’t seem to be quite as in love with its own stylish prettiness as the typical Ridley Scott film, certainly. I think in the end it is because the new film, while extremely clever in the way it manipulates story threads from the original and also audience expectations, doesn’t really apply the same degree of intelligence to the ideas at the heart of the story. The plot has various twists and turns, some of them properly startling, but the film itself has no genuinely surprising new ideas to offer.

But, hey, Blade Runner 2049 is a big-budget Hollywood SF movie, so you have to manage your expectations accordingly. This is an extremely good-looking and well-made film which develops its inheritance of ideas and characters ingeniously and convincingly, even if it never quite finds the spark it would need to become something really special. Denis Villeneuve made the most impressive SF film of 2016; it looks like he’s in with a very good chance of repeating that feat this year, too.

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I suspect that if you chose the right ten people and asked each of them to name a great SF film, then you might not just end up with a list of ten different films, but ten films so wildly different they might not even seem to belong to the same genre, let alone all be exemplars of it. I’m not suggesting that any or all of these people would actually be the kind of morons who think Transformers actually qualifies as an SF film, but simply that you can honestly believe that Primer is the kind of film that epitomises great science fiction, and not be wrong, while someone else can opt for a film like – I don’t know – Gamera: Advent of Legion, and equally be taking a completely defensible stand.

I offer this to you not as some great new insight – the final paper edition of the Encyclopedia of SF had an entry on ‘Definition of Science Fiction (Difficulty of)’ – but because you should, of course, be wary when someone informs you that a new movie is ‘the best SF movie in years’ or something of that ilk. This sort of cachet is being widely applied to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and I would have to say that it is by no means entirely unjustified. But, you know.

arrival

Amy Adams plays Louise Sands, a top linguist and translator whose life, along with that of everyone else in the world, is thrown into turmoil by the appearance in the skies of the planet of twelve vast alien objects, their origins and intentions unknown. The alien presence remains inert and enigmatic, and Louise’s special skill set and a pre-existing connection with the US Department of Defence results in her being recruited to a special project: she is flown to the site in Montana where one of the alien craft has (nearly) touched down, and put in charge of a team attempting to either decipher the aliens’ own baffling language or teach them to communicate in English. Working a parallel project is top physics boffin Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) – yes, it’s a miracle, Jeremy Renner is in a film with a military element and he’s not playing a special forces soldier – and the two forge a close working relationship. But their de facto boss (Forest Whitaker) is desperate for results – other world powers are working equally hard to make contact with the aliens in their own territory, and there will be obvious political and military advantages to the first nation that succeeds…

Arrival kicks off by playing with one of SF’s killer ideas: they arrive. It’s a mesmerising notion, not least because, well, you never know. They may really be coming. They may be here tomorrow, or next week, or… and if they do, well, no-one really knows what will happen next. You could probably do a whole movie just on the ramifications and details of how that event plays out.

However, the movie doesn’t just settle for that, but goes on to tackle a whole range of other concepts, most of which are slightly stronger meat than you generally find in what is laughingly referred to as a Hollywood SF film: the neuro-linguistic hypothesis, the nature of our perception of time, free-will and determinism, and the nature of xeno-linguistics. I mean, I can ask the way to the bathroom in Klingon, but even so, I still thought this film wasn’t afraid to be a bit thinky.

Lest all this should make you blanch, I would advise you not to worry. At least, not much. All of the above is folded into a properly impressive and actually slightly spooky tale of vast, incomprehensible, quasi-Lovecraftian extraterrestrials, that often feels – and I don’t wish to appear to be slighting Villeneuve – very much of a piece with Christopher Nolan’s excursions into the SF field (and regular readers will know that is meant as the highest of compliments).

Of course, part and parcel of this is the way that the film gets rather tricksy and clever with the narrative structure of the story, because not all that’s going on is quite as it first appears. The movie achieves one magnificent, quintessentially science-fictional coup about two thirds of the way through, when the true nature of what’s been going on suddenly becomes clear, and the sense of conceptual breakthrough is dizzying. (However, this is very difficult to talk about in detail without ruining the plot, so I shall move on.)

In short, if you’re starting to get the impression that this is a film with a notable lack of chase sequences and upbeat music cues on the soundtrack, you’re absolutely right: while it certainly seems to be set in the same sort of narrative space as old-school charmers like Close Encounters (lots of people in rubber suits and numerous scenes of the army getting grumpy), it probably goes even further in terms of sheer thoughtfulness and… well, maturity’s not quite the right word, but I’m struggling to find the right one that doesn’t have an off-putting connotation to it. Arrival is a film with a lot of cello music and many moments of the lead character silently contemplating both the value of their life and the nature of existence, which I know is not some people’s idea of a relaxing night’s entertainment.

Nevertheless, it stays very watchable throughout, mainly due to confident, unflappable direction – Villeneuve doesn’t allow himself to be rushed into wheeling on his aliens, and the slow gravity-warping journey into the heart of their craft acquires enormous tension as a result – and very intelligent performances from Adams, Renner, and Whitaker, who carry most of the movie between them. Like nearly all of the film, they are of the highest quality without seeming overly flashy or pleased with themselves – this is a really classy film, the kind of thing that might well win Oscars if it wasn’t saddled with the usually-insuperable problem that it’s obviously science fiction. (The Academy hates science fiction.)

Of course, one way in which Arrival is very much of a piece with numerous pieces of great SF from the past is that it is not exactly a barrel of laughs. It’s not totally po-faced or lacking in warmth, but I thought that the main thrust of the story and particularly the conclusion was not an optimistic statement about the ineffable pleasures of living in the moment, but carried a rather bleaker message about what it means to be a conscious living entity. Yeah, like I said: not exactly your classic popcorn movie, this one.

Still, I’m on record as bewailing the near-disappearance of the classic intelligent SF movie, and so of course I’m not going to complain when something like Arrival comes along. Let’s not worry about its place in history just yet, and settle for saying that this is an extremely thoughtful and inventive SF movie made for grown-ups who aren’t afraid to use their brains, but at the same time aren’t totally out of touch with their emotions. If that sounds like your sort of thing, this film is pretty much an unmissable treat.

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