The women of ‘Dune’ | Arts & Entertainment

There are many similarities between the film with the most Oscar nominations this year, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune 2” — currently screening at the Nugget Theatre in Telluride.

The Nugget is screening “Dune 2” nightly at 6 p.m. Tickets are available at the door 30 minutes before the show starts for $11.

Both films are passion projects that took their directors, both white males not from the United States, many years to develop. Both screenplays are based on well-written books. Both films were shot on IMAX cameras and even had remarkably similar Opening Weekend box office numbers; $82.4 million for “Oppenheimer” and $82.5 for “Dune 2.” 

One big difference between the two: there are almost no women in the “Oppenheimer” cast.

Director Denis Villeneuve centers women’s voices in his film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). The first film, “Dune,” is narrated with voice-over from Chani, Zendaya’s Fremen character. She will be our lead character’s love interest. Timothée Chalamet gets to grow up from the young Paul Atreides, in his home world of Caladan (resembling the Scottish Highlands) to the young warrior of the second film.

In “Dune,” Chani is mostly seen in Paul’s visions. Yet, it’s those visions and the research we see Paul doing that introduce us to the desert planet, Arrakis.

The first film sets up the worlds of this Dune universe. One of the most pivotal and dramatic scenes takes place at the beginning of the narrative. Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, brings him to be tested by the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother. Charlotte Rampling, costumed in dark black robes and veils, is an intimidating presence. Her use of the Voice to command Paul to do her bidding sets up the larger intrigue of how the Bene Gesserit manipulates and controls the royal houses. Using religious fervor, breeding and myth-making, these women act as puppet masters to gain power and control.

There’s historical depth to the mythology and politics that populate the worlds of Dune. The characters are enriched by complex backstories and shifting loyalties. Even with two films and long run times, there was too much rich content, too many characters and details for director Denis Villeneuve to include. He co-wrote the screenplay with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth. And sadly, some of the characters are introduced, only to be assassinated in the next scene. This is especially true in the first film.

Villeneuve places the female characters front and center in his two films.

Paul may be our central character, but his mother plays a big role in shaping who he is as a man and as a political figure. Rebecca Ferguson is wonderful in the role of Lady Jessica. In a few quick scenes, she establishes her love for her partner, Duke Leto Atreides. She has not only given him a son when her religious order demanded a female child, but she has also trained Paul in the Bene Gesserit ways.

Sadly, the narrative arc of one of the strong female characters is given short shrift in the first film. Dr. Liet Kynes is the Imperial ecologist, a man in the novel. In “Dune,”  she is played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster. She’s to lead Duke Leto’s introduction to Arrakis as the Judge of The Change, but she’s a mysterious character.

Only by having read the book would you know that Kynes is Chani’s parent. In the book, it’s the loss of their fathers that helps bond Chani and Paul. She’s pivotal to the film narrative because she provides Jessica and Paul with their exit route and still suits to escape an assassination attempt.

Another central character is almost absent in the second film.

With only moments of screen time, she’s played by the uncredited Anya Taylor-Joy. When the Lady Jessica takes on the role of Reverend Mother to the Fremen people, her transformation also affects her unborn daughter. Alia becomes conscious and is now also a Reverend Mother and a Bene Gesserit.

Florence Pugh has an important role as the narrator of what is taking place on and off Arrakis.

Princess Irulan is the daughter of the Imperial Emperor, ruler of the universe. In the book, it’s her historical writing that opens each chapter. In the film, she spends her time dictating her thoughts for prosperity and discussing political intrigue and power plays with her father. Princess Irulan is fairly passive in this film but would play a larger role in what will likely be the third film, “Dune Messiah.” She ends the movie engaged to Paul, in a political move to save spice production.

A big change from the book is the collapse of time in the story. Rather than the years that unfold in the book, during which Chani and Paul establish their relationship and have a son, “Dune 2” focuses on the action.

There is the thrilling sandworm ride by Paul, now a Fremen warrior himself. And the mother and son are separated when Jessica goes south to spread the word of Paul’s power as a Messiah to the Fremen masses. There are many scenes of her cradling her belly as she communicates with Alia. In the novel, Alia is a toddler with the mind of an adult and she’s the one who kills the Baron, not Paul as it occurs in the film.

It’s remarkable to have a blockbuster film come from the sci-fi/fantasy realm. As unexpected as it is for a biographical drama based on a famous scientist, Oppenheimer, to be winning all the prestigious film awards. It’s also extraordinary to have the most popular film of the year feature such a strong female cast.

“Dune” and “Dune 2” are galaxies far away from “Barbie,” but the image of Zendaya’s blue eyes as she crosses the shimmering sands of Arrakis or Rebecca Ferguson’s tattooed face shrouded by gold chains and veils may linger in your mind long after the fight scenes have faded away.

Drinks With Films rating: 4 sips of reclaimed water (out of 5)

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