A sophisticated sci-fi blockbuster, Villeneuve’s Dune has an epic scope, jaw-dropping action sequences, and stunning visuals.
This review of Dune does not contain spoilers.
As a self-proclaimed Denis Villeneuve superfan, and for that matter, a Dune novice, I found his tenth directed feature film to be a tad too long, despite its epic scope, jaw-dropping action sequences, and visually stunning images. The adaptation of what many consider the most significant science-fiction novel of all time could not have been easy. There are piles of exposition that need to be explained for anyone new to the series. For those, the first act can tend to be confusing. Some will even find it convoluted, but it is understandable considering the source material’s density. Of course, the film opens with the title sequence, Dune: Part One. So, the insight I’m offering is hardly mind-blowing. This first installment aligns with The Lord of the Rings –– a necessary step to something better, even great.
By all accounts, Villeneuve’s Dune uses about half of the first book. (Even with numerous installments in the series, the director said he only plans on doing two films to tell Herbert’s story). Dune takes place in, you know, the future. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is given the job of governing the planet of Arrakis by the emperor. A desert planet enriched in “spice” (referred to in the book as “melange”), the richest material in the universe. Spice has the power to extend life, enhance levels of thought, and allow travel to move faster than the speed of light— this world’s B-12 shot.
Even though Leto knows of the dangers and likely retribution of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) of the House of Harkonnen, he will do anything to get the planet back. This enrages his psychotic nephew, Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista). Though the Baron seems to have a plan that he hasn’t told his followers yet. The Duke brings his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and his son, Paul (Timothée Chalame). He brought along an army and his trusted advisors, including Paul’s mentors, Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), and the House of Atreides Mentat, Thufir (Stephen McKinley Henderson).
When Leto takes over, he shows a kind heart. He offers equal rights to the Fremen — natives to Arrakis. They live in the desert and are led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem). The land is subject to extreme, dry heat. Oh, and those giant sandworms that led everyone to know about the noise ordinance. All of this happens while Paul continues to have dreams of the future. Others doubt him, but Jessica suspects he may be the Fremen’s Messiah.
If you thought my synopsis was confusing, the film drops you in the middle of a world that somehow manages to be vague and convoluted at the same time. However, the exposition-filled first act is woven into dialogue that is as natural as one could hope for. That credit should go to the script by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts (Passengers), and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump). It’s informative while still entertaining, and you never once think of their vision as anything less than cohesive. Though, Dune, like Rings and Star Wars, doesn’t have a breakout character that represents a sense of comic relief. Momoa’s Idaho has the most fun in his role, but the film desperately needs more of this.
Despite my slight criticism over the length and its story that can lean toward the south of sun-baked, Villeneuve’s film is well-crafted and has a maturity that we haven’t seen in an epic since The Lord of the Rings. It’s a heck of a ride. When all hell breaks loose, the invasion scenes that you see in the trailer are spectacular. I’ve never been one to set a moral high ground on how films should be watched, particularly with the rising costs of a theatrical experience and not to mention the current pandemic. Still, Dune demands to be seen on the big screen.
The production value exceeds expectations, even more than any film I have seen in years. The team that Villeneuve gathered is of the highest caliber. From Tom Brown’s (Saving Private Ryan) art design, Jacqueline West’s (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Bob Morgan’s (Inception) costume design, Greig Frasier’s (Rogue One, Zero Dark Thirty) stunning cinematography, and Hans Zimmer’s beautiful, evocative score, it all exceeds expectations. However, the heavy metal bagpipes were an odd choice.
Then, the only thing that can exceed that is the cast that Villeneuve has gathered here. The cast is pure perfection. Chalamet holds his own here, and it will be exciting to see his growth going forward in this film series (I still contend the studio will want to take scrap a part two and make it a trilogy). Brolin and Isaac stand out, like Ferguson, as she continues to find the poignancy in any action heroine she takes on. She has wonderful chemistry with Bardem’s Stilgard that points to an exciting storyline going forward. Even if Zendaya is underutilized here, she will have a more prominent role in future installments.
Overall, Dune’s exceptional qualities far outweigh its minor criticisms. If anything, the first film feels incomplete, which is understandable considering the massive scope. If part two is the final chapter, perhaps both will make one five-hour film feel like a complete experience instead of one step to the bigger picture.