Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Alert Storytelling

I haven't read Dune or any of Frank Herbert's books and I didn't make any effort to go see the first Denis Villaneuve Dune film when it came out in 2021. I'm not quite sure why I didn't go see it since I liked Villaneuve's earlier films, including Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, the sci-fi ones he did before, quite a bit. Now with Dune: Part Two out, though, I decided finally I'd like to see the first film so that I can catch Part Two in a theater. The other night, I put Part One on.

At the story's start, as all Dune fans, I suppose, know, we learn that the galaxy's emperor has ordered one group of beings, the Harkonnens, to leave the planet they are exploiting, Arrakis. After they depart, they will be replaced on Arrakis by another group from the planet Caladan, whose leader, Leto Atreides, is the father of central character Paul Atreides. So far, so good, and the complicated tale goes on from there. The character who tells us in voiceover that the emperor has ordered the Harkonnens to leave Arrakis asks why the emperor gave this order. It's a good question; the Harkonnens have been, from their point of view, succesfully exploiting Arrakis' resources, which is what the emperor apparently wants. So what's going on? As the film progresses, I kept asking this question myself, and for quite some time the answer isn't clear. But just at the point in the film when I was starting to get a little frustrated, wondering when or if this essential point that kicks everything in the plot off was going to get cleared up, another major character in the film asks the same question: why did the emperor issue this decree? 

Perfect timing -- the asking of this question for a second time. As events unfold from this point, we do come to understand why the emperor made this important decision, but what I liked about the question being asked a second time, at that precise point, is that it signalled that the screenwriters were very alert to precisely how the audience is taking the story. It's as if they understood that a viewer will be asking this question and seeking clarity on this major plot point by this time in the narrative, and now they restate it as if to let you know that they know what they're doing. They've left the question unanswered till this point on purpose, not because they overlooked the question or are being sloppy in their storytelling. That's the kind of moment I love when involved in a story, whether in a film or any other medium, because it tells you that you are asking the question or questions the creators of the work want you to ask and at the right juncture in the story. They know what you are thinking, acknowledge what you're thinking, and then proceed to go on with the telling from there, hopefully with the same kind of skill and confidence. In the case of Dune: Part One, the skill and confidence continue unabated, and what could be tangled and confusing (there's a lot going on, though I recoginize that the film gets rids of characters and subplots from the book, as the film must) proves quite easy to follow. The movie doesn't overexplain or get bogged down in exposition but balances questions and answers, mysteries and solutions (or partical solutions) efficiently. There's epic scale balanced by alert and intimate storytelling craft, and that's a balance that's rare. I'm eager to see Dune: Part Two and hope the storytelling in it is as well-tuned as in Dune: Part One.

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