Movie review: How good is new sci-fi epic, Dune?
And why it is so important for the UAE…
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune opens across UAE box offices this weekend, a full month before it’s due to hit screens in America. It’s a dramatic gap in release dates, but one that feels at least partly justified by the fact that much of the movie, was shot right here, amongst Liwa’s own shifting sandscape
This is a philosophical sci-fi caper that is truly epic, both in its conventional and more modern, Millennial-adopted sense. Villeneuve’s movies (which include Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) frequently use scale as a way of isolating characters or concepts, conveying that experience of staring up into the yawning infinity of space on a clear night, and feeling humbled over our individual role in the universe.
It’s out there in space, on a distant series of planets governed by a fractious network of feudal houses, that the story of Dune plays out. Our protagonist is Paul, the young heir of House Atreides, whose family is thrust into a power struggle on the desert planet of Arrakis, home to giant murderous sandworms, scheming ne’er-do-wells, indigenous eco-warriors and a battleground for control of the galaxy’s most precious resource — ‘spice’, which importantly also has some pretty trippy side effects.
The cast is headed up by the brilliant, intensely emo Timothée Chalamet (as Paul Atreides), alongside his father (whom, unlike the emo stereotype, he does not have issues with) played by Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson features as his mother — a Bene Gesserit nun with pseudo Jedi mind trick flexes, and there are supporting roles for Josh Brolin, David Bautista, Zendaya, Javier Bardem and Jason Momoa. Villeneuve’s assemblage is inspired, there truly are no weak links to be found in cast or key crew.
A great man doesn’t seek to lead: he’s called to it
Dune is based on a series of books of the same name, the masterwork of author Frank Herbert and it’s a saga that wrestles with some truly colossal ideas, such as the fragility of the environment. Being a fan of Herbert’s opus since his teenage years, it’s something director Denis Villeneuve was acutely aware of. He’s on record as saying: “It’s a book that explores the impact, the chaos that is created by colonialism … [on the film] It’s a psychological thriller. It’s an adventure movie. It’s a war movie. It’s a coming-of-age movie. It’s even a love story. But, most of all, it’s a tragedy. It’s a powerful, complex story. It’s very multifaceted. Still, we try to approach it from a simple angle”.
That simple angle appears to be a ‘Kubrickian’ attention to detail, a profound and meditated understanding of the genesis text and a, what might be the only current, style of cinematography capable of giving authenticity to Arrakis.
In the two-hour and 35-minute runtime, we watch an impressively condensed first half of the original novel, told through paradigm-shifting special effects, against a haunting Hans Zimmer score. In abridgment, we lose little of the nuance or relationship depth, and the sense of despair and Messianic awakening are told from an artistic and studied perspective.
In fact, the last time we left the cinema, with the sensation of having watched a story so well suited to the big screen, was after 2000’s Gladiator. This isn’t just a great movie, this is genuinely epochal and we strongly recommend watching it on an IMAX screen for full appreciation of its range.
But why is it so important to the UAE..?
So we’ve already established that a decent chunk of Dune was filmed right here in the UAE. But this movie is more than just another name for the country’s glittering CV.
We spoke to Robbie McAree of UAE-based Epic Films. Along with colleague Amanda Confavreux, Robbie was a Servicing Producer heading up the local unit on the new Dune movie, and he had some exciting grains of truth to share about what the sci-fi epic means for the UAE’s role in cinema.
What’s On: How important is Dune to the UAE’s reputation as a shoot location for Hollywood movies?
Robbie: The UAE has already seen its share of Hollywood, Bollywood and independent movies who choose the country as a filming destination, but having a film like DUNE really raises the bar. The Abu Dhabi portion of DUNE was a colossal success, and that will only lead to more and more international producers choosing the UAE. Word of mouth within the international industry is extremely important.
WO: We understand some of the filming in the Liwa desert was conducted over the summer, how did you guys cope with the heat and being so far from plug sockets?
R: Normally we would advise international productions to schedule during the cooler months however there was a very specific and creative reason for filming in July and August. We generally tend to have greyer skies, and more haze during the summer in the UAE which can give desert landscapes an alien and ‘out-of-this-world’ look, perfect for Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Dune. It certainly wasn’t easy, especially for some of the international cast and crew who had never experienced a summer in the UAE. Our filming days were ’split’ which meant we would film in the earlier hours of the day and the later hours of the afternoon, with a much-needed break during the midday heat. We constructed temporary air-conditioned shades which were erected and placed over our filming helicopter and accompanying helicopter filming mounts/rigs when the aircraft was on the ground. The Qasr Al Sarab hotel was our production base, and safe haven from the heat, which was absolutely perfect for what we needed. It had plenty of extremely comfortable rooms for all the cast and crew, helipads for our helicopters and plenty of ballroom space for all of our equipment and props.
What’s On was also able to link up with Hans Fraikin, Abu Dhabi Film and TV Commissioner, about the UAE’s future in the film industry.
What’s On: Do you see the role of the UAE in the production of Hollywood movies growing in the near future? Will we see more, and bigger films aimed at the global market being written, produced and edited here?
Hans Fraikin: In the past few years, Abu Dhabi has attracted some of the world’s biggest production houses, as a filming location for blockbuster Hollywood movies such as Fast & Furious 7, several films in the Mission: Impossible franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 6 Underground’, and recently, the Sci-Fi epic film Dune.
The strength of Abu Dhabi’s production infrastructure came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the emirate was one of very few locations around the world where production continued without pause throughout 2020, meaning Abu Dhabi ensured the continuity of over $100 million (AED 367 million) worth of productions last year. A remarkable example is the smooth and successful production of ‘Mission: Impossible 7’ using an innovative bubble system during early 2021, demonstrating how Abu Dhabi provides excellent production services even in the toughest of times.
Abu Dhabi has announced more than $8 billion in investment into the culture and creative industries, with a significant portion targeted towards film and TV. This will enable us to enhance our offering even further and result in continuing growth, as we welcome even more international and regional productions to Abu Dhabi.
WO: What do you think gives Abu Dhabi the edge over its regional competitors as a shoot location?
HF: Abu Dhabi is distinguished by an incredible diversity of locations, such as futuristic urban scenes, pristine sandy beaches, vast deserts and rural areas packed with cultural heritage. This means we can host a wide range of productions, whether they are set in the region, elsewhere in the world or even in outer space, with Abu Dhabi doubling for intergalactic planets in Star Wars and Dune.
Abu Dhabi is also an incredibly safe destination – in fact the safest city in the world according to many rankings – and has been ranked first in the world for its response to the pandemic by analytics consortium Deep Knowledge Group. The safety factor makes Abu Dhabi an ideal location for production companies in times like these when safety measures are a necessity.
Abu Dhabi Film Commission’s generous 30% cash rebate on production and post-production spend in the Emirate gives producers another reason to choose Abu Dhabi. Last but not least, Abu Dhabi is home to highly skilled local talent who cover the wide spectrum of the production industry.