- Sheldon Gaskell
"Like the precious 'spice' at the center of its narrative, Dune explodes the senses with spectacular visual extravagance and mystical-almost religious-reverence, while at times suffering a pace akin to wading through deep sand or a dream not yet fully realized."
Rated: PG-13 (violence, mature themes)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chen Chang, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Charlotte Rampling, Babs Olusanmokun, Golda Rosheuvel
In Theaters Now
Dune (2021) -original title Dune: Part One- is a dazzling reintroduction to the epic cinematic experience in the same grand scale as Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings where theater-goers will be both parched and invigorated by the harsh, exotic sands of the desert planet Arrakis in a passionate and loyal adaptation of Frank Herbert's lengthy 1965 novel. If you decide to see it in the theater on the big screen (which I highly recommend to fully engage with the jaw-dropping scale of the production design and visceral cinematography) rather than on HBO in the comfort of your own home, you will be treated to an experience beyond any ordinary "fun" Friday night movie outing. No, Dune is not so much fun as it is mesmerizing: stimulating in its vastness, dreaminess, and sharp, intoxicating grit, a glorious and masterfully contrived return to big-budget filmmaking. Book fans and newcomers to the story alike will rejoice in this newest adaptation, which resembles the 1984 David Lynch iteration only enough to remind viewers how a once "impossible" project can be made possible when the right creative team is at its helm. This is not a strike against Lynch's vision (his Dune is both brilliant and flawed in its own flamboyant right), but this film is something else entirely, not perfect by any means, but something nearly Biblical. Like the precious 'spice' at the center of its narrative, Dune (2021) explodes the senses with spectacular visual extravagance and mystical-almost religious-reverence, while at times suffering a pace akin to wading through deep sand or a dream not yet fully realized.
The plot follows young Paul (brilliantly portrayed by Timothée Chalamet), son of Duke Leto (played by Oscar Isaac), of House Atreides as he comes to terms with his mysterious powers and his family's forced relocation at the command of the Galactic Emperor from the watery planet of Caladan to the desert planet of Dune. There are rumors of espionage and plots of political sabotage. Whispers gather of "Muad'Dib" (the Herbert version of a messiah) among the Fremen: the persecuted people of Dune, and "Kwisatz Haderach" (a sacred prophesy meaning "shortening of the way") among the Bene Gesserit: an ancient religion of powerful voice-wielding space nuns. War dances on the tongues of clashing intergalactic dynasties: the vile Harkonnens (the previous colonizers of the planet who brutally plundered the environment and brutalized its people) and the admirable Atreides, who are a bit too naïve and well-to-do for their own good. At the center of it all is the invaluable spice mined from the never-ending sands of Dune, prized for its hallucinogenic effects and, most significantly, its ability to fuel space travel by allowing its user to fold space-time. Advanced computer technologies have been outlawed, so soldiers train with futuristic melee weapons and characters engage in nearly Shakespearean fashion about real deep-seated human dilemmas: familial pride, honor, greed, faith, resilience, and revenge. Viewers are thankfully spared lengthy explanations of these background details and are instead thrust into the action from Paul's perspective as he experiences recurring spiritual visions of a Fremen girl, played by Zendaya, and adapts to his new role on the unforgiving planet. The casting and acting are perfectly executed (among the more notable performances being Rebecca Ferguson as "Lady Jessica," Javier Bardem as "Stilgar," and Stellan Skarsgård as "Baron Vladimir Harkonnen"), breathing sparks into slower early scenes in the film where the story's gargantuan mythos is defined. The Baron is especially impressionable in his dark, cunning intimidation. His rotund, vile presence looms like a shadow over the film's major events.
Director Denis Villeneuve demonstrates his deep-seated love for the source material through his dedication to the script, which is sparse in dialogue (a departure from the book's emphasis on inner-monologue and rapid shifting narrative perspectives) yet rich in historical weight, character lore, and visual storytelling. Characters are true to their origins, complexly layered, and value-driven. Their personalities are revealed through action and relationships rather than exposition, which demonstrates to supreme effect the old adage "show don't tell." This choice is fitting for the screen as it prioritizes the visual in its progression of plot, and in visual excellence the film indeed delivers. Dune is the most beautiful and awe-inspiring film to grace the screen since before the pandemic. It is certainly among the most visually appealing films in Villeneuve's resume (and he is famous for visually-rich productions: see Blade Runner 2049 (2017) which won Roger Deakins his first Oscar for cinematography). Cinematographer Greig Fraser (The Mandalorian (2019), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Foxcatcher (2014), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), among others) captures the stark desert landscape of Jordan in a grand, painterly allusion to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to illustrate a truly alien, inhospitable world in Dune. While in the theater, I felt like I was in the desert alongside Paul, sand in my eyes, sun on my cheeks, and drought in my throat. The visual experience is that impressive. The production, costumes, sound design, and music are equally enthralling, inserting viewers into the historical context of the plot. Viewers are swept into this universe of competing ideologies, religions, and political loyalties through the amazing interweaving of these other-worldly effects. The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is especially effective in bridging a tone of alien futurism with ancient religious historicism. I must admit that I actually prefer Toto's commanding soundtrack from the 1984 film, but Zimmer's attempt is admirable and definitely worthy (he'll probably win the Oscar too).
Still the film is ripe with choices that can be easily misinterpreted as missteps. Given Villeneuve's impressionable passion and perfectionist style, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and go along with his creative liberties. However, the film would have benefited from more precise editing, especially in the first hour where the Atreides family lingers on Caladan. During this time, a woman in a seat near to me had fallen asleep -snoring- and had to be nudged awake by her significant other. I would not exactly characterize the first third of the film as boring, but I would say it is a slow-burn. I also would have preferred (SPOILER ALERT) that the film explored the book's early conflict where Lady Jessica is suspected as being an imperial spy. This choice would have infused energy and drama to moments that sometimes dragged, and it would have created a more balanced transition into the second act where Dr. Yueh (played by Chen Cheng) betrays Duke Leto and surrenders the planet to the Harkonnens. In fact, this whole pivotal moment was rushed. We never hear of Yueh's reasons for betraying the Duke until he does so (where in the book, Yueh is treated with a truly intimate character arc where we learn early on about his wife's torture at the hands of the Harkonnens). It seems imbalanced that an hour is spent wandering the planet of Caladan, which becomes irrelevant to the plot once the Atreides move to Dune, while such an important plot point is rushed over with such disregard. The only other glaring issue is not so much a problem at all, but it did disturb the pacing: the cliché "this is only the beginning" cliffhanger ending and the lack of a true character arc for Paul. Given, this film is only Part One of what will hopefully be a two-part saga (unless the sequel is never funded, which would be a damn shame).
Regardless of minor disagreements, Dune (2021) is a good film and marks a true return to the big-budget epic. You do not want to miss out on an opportunity to see this incredible spectacle on the big screen! For the sake of cinema, see this film before gems like this are lost to time. Fear not the pre-Covid landscape that is the theatrical cinematic experience, for "fear is the mind-killer."