Synopsis: In the distant future, noble House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), takes over stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis and its valuable spice mining operations. However, this turns out to be a plot by the sinister Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) to eliminate House Atreides, of which only the Duke’s concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the secretive Bene Gesserit sect, and their son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) survive. Alone and vulnerable, Paul and Jessica flee into the desert in the hope of survival and to uncover the source of Paul’s prophetic dreams about the native Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya).
1. Soooooooo … did you get all that? Trust me, that synopsis was as difficult to write as it was to comprehend, which nicely encapsulates the reason why Frank Herbert’s Dune novels have long been considered unadaptable. Dense with mystical, technological and political minutiae, and featuring a complex, winding plot along with a giant cast of characters, Dune has famously claimed the scalps of luminaries like David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky (1) Now into the fray steps Denis Villeneuve. It is on paper a good fit – Villeneuve has shown with Enemy, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 the ability to craft intellectually stimulating science fiction, with the added bonus of composing some of the most visually arresting filmic images of the 2010s. But movies are not made on paper, and with the latest incarnation of Dune currently in theatres, the question remains – does Villeneuve succeed where Lynch and Jodorowsky failed?
Eh … kinda?
2. Villeneuve’s Dune is a bulky, ungainly beast, but one with an awesome beauty and a rarely-seen sense of epic scale – not unlike the giant sandworms that inhabit Arrakis. From the get-go it is clear that the density of the source material remains a struggle to adapt, with the first hour being almost nothing but world-building. Oh, but what a world it builds! Herbert’s novel has endured thanks to the richness of its setting, and Villeneuve studiously conveys its most important information to the viewer, even if the screenplay has to sometimes resort to groaningly clunky ‘as you know‘ exposition. And yet, even with this deluge of detail, certain key points are omitted – like how exactly spice is used for interstellar travel or the exact nature of the Bene Gesserit’s powers. This speaks to just how much is necessary to set up in order to make Dune halfway intelligible, but thankfully the first hour ends up being extremely enjoyable due to the alchemy of Villeneuve’s aesthetic sensibility and Herbert’s imagination. World-building often feels like a chore, but not this time, when the universe created is so rich and deep.
3. It helps as well that Dune looks spectacular. Villeneuve may not be as outré a visual stylist as Lynch or Jodorowsky, but what he does have that is sorely lacking in the current blockbuster cinema landscape is a size of scale. A feature of Villeneuve’s work, from the more grounded Sicario to the more fanciful Blade Runner 2049, is the juxtaposition of extreme sizes, with shots of the protagonists dwarfed by the world around them reflecting their powerlessness in the face of implacable forces beyond their control. And boy oh boy does Dune have this feature in spades. Characters are overshadowed by spaceships, oceans, sandworms, buildings, and of course, dunes upon dunes of desert. This shot composition allows Dune to crackle with a mystical grandeur so lacking in other big-budget movies, where CGI-sweetened shots of elaborate settings tend to be treated as mere establishing shots to be viewed once and promptly discarded for ho-hum medium shots. Not so for Dune, which stages the attack on House Atreides on such an epic scale that explosions look like pinpricks in the distance, and hordes of advancing Sardaukar warriors resemble ants marching in formation. Beyond the sheer size of Villeneuve’s sets (2), there is a pleasing dirtiness to them that gives the best science fiction movies (e.g. Alien, Star Wars) a lived-in quality. Design-wise, the technology in the movie is refreshingly analogue, in stark contrast to the uncanny touch-screen smoothness trafficked in by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All this lends Dune‘s world a real vitality that invigorates the procession of pretty pictures.
4. Ok so Dune looks great. But what about everything else? It’s … alright? The plot is relatively bog-standard ‘chosen one’ fare, and unfortunately the film does not spend nearly enough time with its narrative’s most subversive element, which is the fact that this particular ‘chosen one’ is part of a millennium-long eugenics conspiracy, down to seeding Arrakis with fake myths to prime the population to accept the impending messiah. (3) This is a narrative development that still feels as fresh today as it did in the 70s, but it is not given the time it deserves due to the need to establish the entire world and the giant cast of characters. This would have been a good jumping off point to criticise colonialism and the ‘white saviour’ narrative, but Dune sadly does not take this opportunity, which makes the film feel slightly hollow beneath its spectacular surface. The second half of the film also drags quite a bit, with Jessica and Paul’s trek to the desert feeling rather interminable at times, thanks to a few scenes going on a little longer than they really needed to. And speaking of interminable, I found myself checking out at the many, many, many repetitions of Paul’s prophetic visions. We get it – he’s dreaming of the desert and Chani. That was clear the first time, and it does not get any more interesting the seventh time. A more judicious editing process would have been welcome.
5. As for the acting, it’s largely solid without ever being more than that, as is the usual end result of such a large cast. Of the principals, Oscar Isaac acquits himself well as the noble Duke Leto, while his counterpart Stellan Skarsgard cleverly underplays Baron Harkonnen with sinister malice. Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa do what they do best – gruff stoicism and bro-ey good humour respectively. Kudos must also be given to Charlotte Rampling, who, with just a single scene and with most of her face covered, practically walks away with the entire movie with her intimidating portrayal of the Reverend Mother. The overall best performance in the movie probably belongs to Rebecca Ferguson, who portrays Lady Jessica’s conflicting loyalties excellently and emotively. As for Timothee Chalamet … look, while I actually like him, I also get that his range is a tad limited. Thus when it was first announced that Chalamet was playing Paul Atreides, I have to admit to feeling a little skepticism as to whether the actor John Mulaney so memorably christened ‘the boy’ would be up to playing the role of big budget blockbuster lead. And you know what? He’s pretty good! Chalamet’s signature brooding slouchiness pairs perfectly with the film’s vision of Paul as a reluctant, angsty hero, though the true test will probably come in Part II where we will see if he can play the more heroic, battle-hardened Paul.
6. Which brings me to the final point of my review, and the most difficult thing standing in the way of deciding if Dune is worth your time. This is half a film. There’s no getting around that. It even ends with Chani intoning ‘this is only the beginning’, which is a pretty ironic thing to hear after having sat through two and a half hours of movie. There is next to no resolution whatsoever, which is what separates this from say, a Star Wars or MCU movie. This kind of thing is not unprecedented – The Lord of The Rings comes to mind, along with Kill Bill. Yet unlike those other two seriees, Dune‘s sequel is not guaranteed, and at the time of writing has yet to be greenlit, leading to Villeneuve essentially threatening fans of the franchise to watch it in theatres in order to ensure a strong enough box office take to confirm a sequel, which is not a good look in the midst of a global pandemic. Frankly, it’s mindboggling that Warner Bros. would have sunk this much money into Dune without confirming that there would be a second part, but far be it from me to understand the vagaries of Hollywood financing. As such, I can really only say that the half of Dune that we have right now is a flawed but enjoyable work. It builds a deeply immersive and detailed world, interpreting Herbert’s rich lore with truly astounding and awe-inspiring imagery and cinematography. Narratively, it suffers from pacing issues and is what you would expect from a film that is composed of nothing but a first act – all world-building and introductions without any resolution. Nonetheless, what has been delivered is different enough from its blockbuster ilk that I recommend you see it, and on the biggest screen possible (safety permitting, of course) to really feel the true grandiosity of the experience. (4) Only time will tell if Dune becomes the first part of a satisfying narrative or a half-baked setup with no payoff, but even if it is the latter, it is still undoubtedly unique and entertaining enough to be worth your time regardless.
- The former’s film was a critical and commercial bust, while the latter’s never even got out of pre-production.
- I cannot say for certain if they are physical sets or CGI (almost certainly a combination of both), which is a damned good sign because it shows how well the latter has been integrated into the former.
- Yes yes, I know that it’s dealt with a lot more in the novels, but I can only judge what’s onscreen.
- Not mentioned so far is Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score, all operatic wails and thundering Middle Eastern instrumentation. It’s loud, unsubtle, and thoroughly brilliant. I loved it.