Movie Review: Dune

Denis Villeneuve is an auteur, a contemporary great and one of the best directors of all-time. Sicario, Arrival, Enemy, Prisoners, Incendies and now Dune… his filmography underscores his propensity and ability to mine the darker side of human nature. Delivering films that carry artistic merit, substantial themes and straddle the line between art house and box office much like Christopher Nolan, it’s no wonder he’s in such high demand.

Dune journeys with Paul Atreides, a young noble who begins to discover his true calling. Dreams speak to his destiny as he becomes entrusted with protecting the precious resource known as spice, one of the galaxy’s most valuable and vital elements. While ‘Dune’ has been adapted several times across film and television, the film adaptation developed a stigma after Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1974 adaptation eventually stalled and David Lynch’s 1984 version bombed. ‘Dune’ author, Frank Herbert, said that Jodorowsky’s script was the size of a phone book… a film that would ultimately be 14 hours long in its current format. After attaching some of the world’s greatest artists and performers, the production ceased after they were unable to secure the remaining third of its intended budget.

The rights lapsed and were snapped up by movie mogul, Dino De Laurentiis, who hired David Lynch to direct. Unfortunately, Lynch struggled to capture his true vision for the world of ‘Dune’, throttled by De Laurentiis who didn’t give the director enough creative control. Lynch’s 1984 version of ‘Dune’ starring regular collaborator, Kyle McLachlan, still has enough intrigue and gears to work as a standalone film in spite of its flaws. However, it seems to have done enough damage to divert the constant artist, Lynch, from the puppet strings of blockbusters. It may have ultimately been his saving grace but also explains why no one’s taken up the monumental adaptation… until now.

Denis Villeneuve’s track record is nearly flawless and his film are always worth the price of admission. The closest misfire he has to Lynch’s Dune is the Blade Runner sequel. Blade Runner 2049 was a visual masterpiece in the hands of Oscar-winning cinematographer, Roger Deakins, but it wasn’t as captivating as the auteur’s other films in terms of connection and storytelling. A beautifully realised audiovisual cinema experience, he struggled with contact points and relied on rather flat-footed performances in spite of securing a stellar cast. Taking a page from Arrival’s otherworldly beauty and scale as well as learnings from his distant Blade Runner sequel, Villeneuve’s crafted a majestic and epic adventure worlds away. Having summited a beloved and visually-intensive franchise film already, much of the legwork prepared him to mount Dune.

dune 2021

“Where’s Burt Gummer when you need him?”

Adapted from Frank Herbert’s series, Dune serves as the first installation in what’s scheduled to be a two-film event with Dune: Part Two set for 2023 and the series, Dune: Sisterhood, on the horizon. David Lynch tried to jam-pack ‘Dune’ into the space of 130 minutes, tethered to the wishes of an overbearing producer. Villeneuve realised, along with Jodorowsky, that the story was big… sprawling enough to upscale into a film series. Free from the pressure of a remake or a follow-up to a classic, the only pressure for Villeneuve must have been to live up to the expectations of Dune’s potential and long-running fandom through the books, games and series.

Dark, sleek and artful, it’s casting reflects this mood with Villeneuve siphoning many excellent performances from his talented ensemble. The enigmatic Timothée Chalamet takes on the Messianic lead role of Paul Atreides, heralding a character who grows in stature. An equal-opposite in the elemental Zendaya, her interspersed presence builds anticipation for the adventure ahead. Being the son of a noble family, Chalamet’s flanked by the regal Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac who present some of their best work. Ferguson is intense and unflinching as Lady Atreides while Isaac brings surprising warmth and humility to Duke Atreides.

Branching out, Dune is composed of many accomplished underdog actors in Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem with Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen. Each of these stalwarts command respect and are good enough to play lead roles, yet Dune seems like a team effort where egos have no place where sandworms and wastelands don’t discriminate. The production has the scope of a biblical epic set against desert landscapes and echoing the scale of Laurence of Arabia making it worth watching on the biggest screen you can access. Colossal transporters are suspended in the air, troops assemble in regiments to intimidate and the desert’s giant sentinels lie in wait.

While the monolithic visuals glide across screen without pomp and circumstance, they gracefully mingle with surreal elements. The steady pacing seems unrushed yet constantly involved in unfurling the story without feeling forced or trying to impress with moments. Villeneuve’s world-building makes the extraordinary seem ordinary and this adds to Dune’s sense of authenticity. Carefully balancing the real with the unreal gives it a sense of place without coming across as too distant or foreign. His subtle decisions and wisdom serve the story and characters, resisting gimmickry.

The soundtrack is just as impressive, summoning up a similar majesty and power, almost taunting the visuals to match its grandeur. Able to leverage the visual technology of today, given free rein, demonstrating his abilities as an auteur and able to carve up the story into smaller parts, Villeneuve trumps Lynch’s cult version. Building his Dune on an epic screenplay, first-rate visual effects, first-class performances, an inspirational soundtrack, elegant design and great restraint, one of the film’s biggest strengths and weaknesses is that it’s only the first chapter. Harnessing a cinematic purity, Villeneuve channels his wisdom and abilities to craft a film series and long-awaited adaptation destined for greatness.

The bottom line: Epic