Should You See Dune in IMAX?

For some time, Dune was considered unfilmable. That was before the many ill-fated attempts, most by first-rate filmmakers, and one that sounds like a candidate for greatest film ever (or rather never) made. Jodorowsky’s dream was too ambitious (and would have strayed too far from the text), Lynch’s was strong-armed by the studio, the John Harrison miniseries’ reach exceeded its grasp. Today, audiences are slow in returning to theatres, even for blockbusters, and have largely lost their appetite for hard-nosed science-fiction. But, if any film could satisfy fans of the novel, and give audiences a ride worth the price of admission, Denis Villeneuve’s new treatment is that film. It is an engrossing, vivid, exciting and unique filmgoing experience; the movie this world deserves.

Like most intelligent but straightforward sci-fi, Dune thrives off of fascination and involvement, here in a crucial moment in the life of Paul Atreides, the son of a noble family entrusted with the protection of the most valuable asset in the galaxy, the spice mélange, which grants super-human vitality and prescience, extends lifespans, and makes faster-than-light travel possible. As the trailers suggest, it is an intense, thrilling, and on the whole quite serious experience, but it is also quietly funny, whilst avoiding the out of place quips and tension destroying jokes tentpole films have allowed to dominate (a moment of confused diplomatic exchange got a bigger laugh from the theatre than most comedies out this year). Jason Momoa brings some humanity as a fatherly and spirited mentor to our hero Paul, but Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica has the best role of anyone in the film, being of three worlds, a member of the Bene Gesserit (sort of witch priestesses), concubine to key political leader Leto Atreides, and mother to Paul. Her conflict in balancing the interests of the Bene Gesserit in shaping the flow of power in their mission to enlighten humanity, and sculpting Paul into the prophesized messiah, with her pain over putting her own child through so much, lives up to the promises of improving the arcs of women in these older stories that watchers are sold time and time again. Paul himself is played by the boyish and sullen Timothée Chalamet, perfectly cast, as is just about everyone from the mannerly and rugged Leto to the intimidating and punishingly slovenly Baron Harkonnen.

By this point, those not familiar with the source material may be a little concerned by all the gobbledygook at play. Watching the film itself you won’t be left wondering what’s going on, so long as you listen to everything that’s said (there is not a wasted line in the script). Despite being a relatively faithful adaptation, Dune is not overly long, and in fact one- or two-story beats seemed to pass a little too quickly. That said, since they’ve opted to adapt only the first half of the novel, this is nowhere near as overstuffed as some earlier incarnations.

All of these adaptations have had to face the fact that other sci-fi films have jumped the gun, nicking as many ideas as they could from the original novel. Despite this, Dune 2021 feels new, and the ideas that are familiar (a chosen one, mind control, an evil empire, destiny-shaping cloaked monastics, etc.) don’t feel overplayed. Instead, this feels like a coming-of-age story of mythological importance, a classic heroes’ journey, partly because of the inherent quality of Paul’s story, someone who shoulders the immense pressure of prophecy and who must grow to fulfill it, and partly because of the virtuosity with which Villeneuve guides the journey. It’s the sort of direction that makes you realise how accustomed you’ve become to spectacle in blockbusters, most of which seem to squander the awe that their scale would demand. Dune is not trying to push all your buttons, filling the quotas nervous studio execs compile to justify their multi-million dollar investment, and so some viewers will complain about a lack of heart; that the movie is too clinical (the same sort of detached brilliance seen in a Kubrick film), but the story doesn’t suffer from this in the slightest. It keeps most characters at arm’s length, and relies on the strength of its material and vision to enrapture you.

And on that vision, we come to what makes the film unmissable. Dune is the best example of cinematic world-building since the Lord of the Rings trilogy, not in the sense that it seems to be teeming with details that suggest the lived-in, but in the sense of utter immersion they both capture. Although this must surely be an exceptionally effects-heavy production, the reality of the film is seamless, and its scale is monumental. There are some shots which seen on a smaller screen will mean next to nothing to a viewer; entire vehicles will likely be reduced to a handful of pixels. This tracks, since Villeneuve has been touting Dune as a tribute to the big screen experience for some time. More than that, his film seems to be sourcing from the best of the must-see-in-theatres club; some of 2001’s intergalactic scope and mouth-frothing technological ballet, Lawrence of Arabia’s swooping masses in battle and overpowering desert scenery, the lavish costumes and unwieldly sets of Ben-Hur, and some very specific Apocalypse Now allusions in the catastrophic destruction of its battle-scenes (the burning palm trees) and its unsettling villain (the deep-voiced Baron wiping sweat from his bald head). The less is spoiled here about the chill-inducing sandworms, the better.

The size of the image also contributes to the small scale: close-ups are given incredible texture when blown up to the size of a building. Grit on a grave stone you could scratch your nails across, raindrops larger than your head, a healing bath slick like olive oil floating in balsamic vinegar, and the all-important spice, flying delicately past your eyes, all accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s best and most unique score in years (featuring a use of bagpipes that somehow actually works).

In short, see it in IMAX, and if you can only see it in IMAX 3D, then do so. This is the best implemented 3D I have ever seen, and it is still somewhat distracting, but nowhere near being a deal-breaker. If given a choice between the slight gimmickry of 3D on an IMAX screen or a regular 2D showing but on a smaller screen, there is no choice. And we hope you do go, because this is absolutely a part one to the main course of part two, but if this what we’re getting out of part one, we can only hope the wait isn’t long. Sometimes a film is so good you have to rely on cliché: this is an experience.