Dune 2021: Incomparable By Choice

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Having seen the 2021 Dune movie by Denis Villeneuve, I’m not going to compare it to other takes or other films. Let’s talk about it on its own first.

Dune 2021 quickly introduces us to the world of the far future through the viewpoint of an initially nameless inhabitant of the titular planet (Chani, played by Zendaya). Through her angry eyes, we learn of Dune’s exploitation as its sands hold the drug known as Spice. Under the oppressive hand of the noble-in-title-only family of the Harkonnens, the natives watch their world exploited. When the Harkonnens suddenly leave, the natives assume they will have only a change of oppressors.

Suddenly, our view switches to the planet of Caladan, home of house Artredes, appointed to rule Dune by sudden and suspicious Imperial Decree. Our viewpoint is now that of Paul (Timothée Chalamet), an understandably moody young noble. Paul is caught up in political machinations, his need for an identity, and his mother’s involvement in a mysterious, mystical sisterhood, the Bene Gesserit. Despite wealth and power (possibly precognitive power) Paul is a pawn in many other games.

Chalamet’s Paul was where I truly began to appreciate the human-centric approach to Dune. We’ve all known Pauls, talented and well-meaning people enmeshed in obligations and demands that threatened to strangle their own identities. Less poetically, Paul is that slightly moody and awkward teenager whose moodiness is entirely understandable.

The film slowly and gradually moves onto the larger plots of intrigues and backstabbing, of visions and manufactured messiahs. For those somehow unfamiliar with the story, it would spoil the tale. For those familiar with the story, it is useless to summarize them. I would rather spend space describing how the film is done.

Theatrical is the word I finally used to describe the Dune of 2021. As grand as the world and the effects may be, the film stays focused on the characters. It is a tale of intimacy among sweeping planetscapes and galactic machinations. There is grandeur and impressive effects a-plenty, but these are backdrops to the characters because it is their story.

The moments I remember the most are the personal ones over special effects. Paul yelling in frustration over what people have tried to make him. The enduring bravery of Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) as he faces danger. The stoic yet fracturing expressions of Jessica Artredes (Rebecca Ferguson) as she navigates political and emotional minefields. Even battles with nameless troops have an impact because of well-chosen effects and shots that make the deaths and pain seem real.

The cast is universally excellent and embraces their roles appropriately but also with dignity. It would take little effort for me to praise each actor, but I prefer you experience the film for itself. I easily imagined this cast could have been filmed in front of paintings and still done a fine job.

Now, with a review comparing Dune 2021 to nothing else, let me now compare it to things.

First, I refuse to compare it to Lynch’s Dune or the Syfy television series. Each was made under different conditions, at different times, with different goals.  Dune is a challenging property to make anyway, and I feel all have their virtues and visions. This film is a vision as well.

It is also a vision that breaks every Holywood rule of the last few decades to deliver that vision. It hasn’t been cut or refined to fit assumptions and marketing calculations. There is no “save the cat” here to fit convenient audience expectations. No one holds your hand as a guide on the byzantine backstory; one has to pay attention. Finally, it’s two and a half hours long, and it’s only part one.

I’d put Dune 2021 up there with such things as Kwaidan and Silent Running. To see it is to experience a vision of what was wanted, a consistent, personal take on the story. It may not be an easy experience, but like Paul, you get farther when you seek a vision and follow it through pain and fire to something greater.

Did I enjoy Dune 2021? No, I experienced it, and that is a need all too rarely satisfied.

Steven Savage

Godzilla Singular Point: Go Big and Go Confident

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Godzilla Singular Point (GSP) starts with a simple idea: What if we did a Ghostbusters/X-files take on Godzilla? That concise summary is the last simple thing about it, resulting in a complicated and glorious take on kaiju.

It’s 2030, and strange happenings are afoot in Japan. Members of the freelance techno-troubleshooters Otaki Factory investigate mysterious music in a mansion. Rising science genius Mei finds alarms going off in a science station. Monsterous birds suddenly appear out of nowhere. A strange, powerful agency skulks in the shadows.

That’s episode one. Before things get more complicated.

Over time other kaiju appear, but GSP brings its own twist on each one. Though you might find a favorite kaiju sidelined or radically re-interpreted, the creators put thought into each take. Rodan becomes a flock of creatures, but their numbers make them terrifying. Armored Angurius is smaller, but the writers have a unique take on the creature’s defensive abilities.

Dedicated Kaiju fans may question a choice or two, but you can’t question the creators’ love of the source material. Even monsters that don’t stomp down streets may get a side mention or appear as merchandise.

While monsters battle military forces and Otaki’s familiar mecha Jet Jaguar, other heroes and antiheroes race to discover the source of the kaiju. GSP soon introduces a loveable AI, extradimensional molecules, a computer displaced in time, and more. The strange technologies and spiraling conspiracies come as fast as a flock of re-interpreted kaiju.

Godzilla shows up eventually, with plenty of teases and slow build-up. When we finally see the Big Guy, the show goes out of its way to honor different takes on him. He’s also a pure force of nature, and we see him from the viewpoint of the people trying to escape him or stop him. He’s one big apocalypse in a multi-sided end-of-the-world meltdown.

When we get to the inevitable final battle, there’s a lot more than kaiju throwdown. Other timelines, more shout-outs, and a surprising-yet-not season 2 hint all come together. You have to watch through the credits to understand everything you just saw – and may still be confused as well as delighted. Not every show requires you to watch to the last few minutes.

If it sounds like GSP is too complex, crazy, and “re-interpretive,” that’s understandable. You’ll notice I shied away from describing much of the plot, which I did. I would need a series of flowcharts to explain what goes on between creatures and conspiracies.

In many ways GSP is “too much.” Too much science fiction craziness. Too many kaiju (often re-interpreted). Too many characters to keep track of. It should fall apart, yet instead, it’s intriguing and entertaining as you have to see what happens next.

What makes GSP work is that it proceeds with utter confidence in what it’s doing.

GSP’s creators have committed to their takes on famous kaiju and the genre. They embrace the twisting plots and strange technologies passionately and without apology. They’re ready to throw in silly humor, bloody horror, and whatever they think fits the story. GSP isn’t just a show – it’s a vision.

If you like kaiju stories, give it a try. Let yourself live inside a creative vision for awhile – it may inspire you to follow your own.

Steven Savage

Strange Days: Regretful Artificial Memories

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Strange Days is one of those films more people have heard about than seen. “That cyberpunk film with Ralph Fiennes” is how I usually hear it summed up. Though this 1995 movie has quite a pedigree – written by James Cameron, directed by Kathryn Bigelow – it did not do well in the theater. When I saw it recently, I could see why; Strange Days is a mostly-courageous, mostly-creative film that mostly ignored popular trends.

Seen now, one can see the audacity, and though there are flaws of the “mostly” variety, there’s much to take away.

The Hollow Man

In 1999, right before the end of the millennium, ex-cop Lenny is busy selling the ultimate high – people’s recorded memories. A recording technology called SQUID, once meant for police work, now serves as a way to relive people’s experiences. A bustling underground in other’s lives emerged, and the sleazy-but charming Lenny is ready to make a buck.

When we meet Lenny (Ralph Finnes), he’s reliving the memories of a crime someone else committed – another high on a portable disk. We soon realize his entire life is trading memories, some contracted for, some sold, all with a market. He relishes his role as a merchant of dreams, even if a little bit of con and trickery is needed.

But Lenny’s life and joy are as false as his fake designer watches. When not trading for experiences, he keeps reliving his life with his former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). She’s moved on to live with eccentric but powerful music producer Philo (Michael Wincott), while Lenny keeps reliving the same days off of a disk. His life is just a loop of other people’s memories and his recorded ones.

The film explores Lenny slowly and has a rare quality – the courage to explore a concept. The SQUID is the only difference between our worlds, and our gateway to Lenny’s world is Lenny. By seeing his life – and his addiction – we get a natural feel for the impact of technology on people.

Of course, Lenny, is missing a lot of what’s going on.

A Small Man In The Big Picture

Lenny’s world is a small one of recordings, sales, and his two friends. Detective Max (Tom Sizemore, as charmingly sleazy as Fiennes) helps him with cons and provides information. Bodyguard and driver Mace (an incredible Angela Bassett) provides transport and muscle, as well as common sense. They also help him navigate the larger world – and his problems because Lenny is a damaged man.

The Los Angeles of the film is damaged as well and all too believable. Police brutality is a constant, and communities conflict. The murder of a famous Rapper on Philo’s label threatens to set the city aflame. One can almost understand why Lenny finds customers – who wouldn’t want to escape? Lenny’s own withdrawal and delusions seem entirely sensible.

Lenny may be trying to escape himself, but he can’t escape after consuming a random memory disk someone dropped in his car.

Hell Is Other People

The memories Lenny finds are of a brutal rape and murder of a prostitute in his circle – from the killer’s view. These scenes are disturbing, raw, and ugly – and pumped straight into Lenny’s mind.

Though these vicious memories are horrible on screen, they’re made more horrible by seeing Lenny’s reaction. We jump-cut between the POV murder and Lenny’s horrified expression as he cries and tries to make sense of what he’s living. We do not just see what is going on, Fiennes makes us feel what is going on and what he is experiencing.

Despite the disturbing nature of this sequence, the courage of the film is on display here. First, the film extrapolates how a sick mind might use the technology. We’ve seen Lenny’s customers buy sex or POV robberies, but now we’re forced to reckon with how far people may go. It’s not hard to look at this scene and say, “Yes, people would do this. Yes, they would pay for it.”

But just as – or more – courageous is the scene comes off as a critique of POV Slasher movies. Often these films put people in the shoes of the killer as they go about their gruesome business. Through Lenny – and Fiennes’s performance – he experiences the killer’s mind and how disgusting it is.

Lenny, the dealer of a modern-day electronic drug, has just had the ultimate bad trip.

An Erratic Path

The film follows Lenny, Max, Mace, and the others as they deal with the city on edge, the question of the murder, and their own problems. At this point, summing up the film is both difficult but would also spoil too much.

It would spoil too much because, at heart, this is a kind of murder-mystery film. It is the kind of movie – like a human memory – you have to experience to see the winding path and where it goes. Without spoiling, let us say it is like life – some things are dramatic when small, and some dramatic things turn out to be illusions.  Strange Days isn’t afraid to be messy or disappoint you appropriately.

Unfortunately, the difficulty in explaining the film is that sometimes the film overexplains. The film’s courage gives out in parts, where you don’t have slow revelations but large infodumps. These are not as satisfying, and I could easily give away huge parts in a few sentences – because that’s how the film does it.

The ending ends up both exciting and disappointing. There are believable ugly and beautiful plot twists, next to feel-good tropes and violence out of an opera. For all it’s courage, too many parts near the end seem contrived to be audience-pleasers. These parts are in stark contrast to the film’s, gritty, messy mood – Lenny’s world isn’t clean, and neither should the end of his tale be.

Seventy-Five Percent Courageous

Though I am critical of parts of the film, I have to applaud the sheer commitment to its core ideas for most of the movie. The film is willing to extrapolate on technology. The story is messy in most of the right splots because life is messy. There are elements that I cannot see people being brave enough to include today.

I may critique the film, but that’s because it only falters when it loses that courage that infuses so much of it. The film feels easy in so many ways, sprinting forward with its ideas horrible and wonderful, so when it trips, you feel the jolt. I’ll take courage most of the time over cowardice predominating.

None of my critiques are directed at the cast, who are uniformly excellent. Fiennes is absolutely believable as Lenny. Basset’s Mace is a real bad-ass. You can feel the cast’s courage, and indeed they carry the film when it’s bravery isn’t apparent.

Stumble Towards Greatness

The lesson that stays with me from the film is that in creativity, courage always beats cowardice. Even partial courage is better when it predominates. This film may not have done well at the box office, but it has been re-evaluated in time, and that validates the flawed bravery of the movie.

Much like its protagonist, the film is imperfect and has shallow moments, but it does keep going. If you don’t stop, maybe you get to a place that’s better.

Steven Savage