Dune ★★★★½

After much excitement and fanfare in hearing that Denis Villeneuve was brought on to direct this film… After much praise was awarded for bringing on this all star cast… After much hyperbole was delivered for claiming this to be the next Star Wars or Lord of the Rings… After much delay and patience due to the COVID-19 pandemic… We finally have the long awaited second feature film adaptation attempt of Frank Herbert’s genre defining science-fiction epic. And, it’s nothing short of spectacular. Dune is an artistically ethereal sci-fi journey that ultimately reminds us why we love cinema, and why we look up to the stars.

In the far off distant future humanity is divided into feudal houses that rule over entire planets as part of a great collective empire. Military might is of high value. Ancient religions can grant a select few the power to control other people with the power of their voice. And an ultra rare resource known as ‘spice’ is the most sought after thing in the universe. Spice extends human vitality, allows for cerebral expansion, and is critical for interstellar space travel. Unfortunately, spice can only be mined in the harsh deserts of the planet Arrakis. The House Harkonnen, led by the malicious Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård) is the ruling house. But Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and House Atreides are commanded by the Emperor to take Arrakis and control of the mining of spice. This leads to great conflict. It’s only made worse when Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the Duke’s son, starts seeing visions from the future and of the native Fremen peoples of Arrakis that things begin sliding to a point of no return. Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Paul’s mother and the Duke’s concubine, must teach Paul the ancient ways of the Bene Gesserit religion to help. All while visions of the beautiful Chani (Zendaya) cloud our judgment.

As many have already said, Dune demands respect and admiration for its unwavering vision to deliver a story on a truly grand and epic scale. Villeneuve does not shy away from the daunting task of delivering fully realized world building that encompasses many different planets, and cultures. When you look at a property such as Star Wars in the here and now it’s easy to scoff by comparison and say this does not push far enough. But that’s after you’ve had decades of stories, and almost a dozen films. But when you compare Dune to something like the original Star Wars, it’s impossible to not have this film blow your mind. The variance in physique, costume, linguistic cadence, cultural norms, and even military standing between different societies in this movie is enough to make your head spin, while simultaneously begging for more. I could watch a three hour behind the scenes documentary simply on the creation of all the peoples and creatures in this film and be fully riveted from beginning to end.

This level of fantastic world building sets the foundational stage from which the entirety of the movie can thrive. One of the key elements is the direction of Villeneuve in combination with these tremendous performances. Once again, Villeneuve proves he’s one of the best artists in the game. He has such an understanding of the camera. There’s an amazing sense of patience, and construction of the frame. More than anything, he knows how to elicit and receive the most from his cast. The performances in this movie are terrific. Chalamet and Ferguson anchor the emotional core of this movie. They are dynamic as mother and son fighting for survival in a harsh world after they’ve lost virtually everything. It’s all incredibly grounding. This movie explores the high highs, and low lows, of life. We see Paul have everything, and lose everything. But it’s how he holds himself, and how Chalamet portrays Paul, in his lowest moments where we really see something truly exemplary. His resolve to stand up for what’s right and be the beacon that lights the brighter path is inspiring.

There’s so much beyond just those two as well. Zendaya is a whimsical enchantress, calling forth to the audience like a siren. Isaac is our benevolent and steadfast leader. He plays regal, even if he is blinded by pride. Skarsgård is absolutely vile and wretched. A disgusting sack of flesh. Jason Momoa is the best friend you could ever have. Dave Bautista is the exact opposite. Josh Brolin is the grizzled old military vet that we’ve all met in our real life. And Javier Bardem is the wise old man that you always wish you took the time to learn more worldly knowledge from. From David Dastmalchian, to Sharon Duncan-Brewster, I could just keep going on and on. Across-the-board, this is a tremendous ensemble cast.

Continuing a bit with what I touched on earlier, the technical acumen of this film is also spectacular. You could even make a real argument that it is the best reason to see this movie. The cinematography on display throughout this picture is breathtaking. As much as Anakin Skywalker would hate it, you’ve never seen sand looks so beautiful in your entire life. The action set pieces, and fighting choreography, is exceptional. It’s also shot and edited very well. The costume work here is exquisite. What appears to be simple fabrics and plastics have never looked so lived in and beautiful. Gorgeous earth tones encompass the majority of this picture bringing to life beautiful tapestries and carved portraits into stonewalls lending credence to the immaculate art direction and set design. The musical score by Hans Zimmer is a triumphant stand out. The tribal drums and haunting chants will stick with you long after the credits have finished rolling. Above all, the visual effects throughout this movie are jaw-dropping. There will be many moments where practical effects on a stage blend so seamlessly with the green screen behind it that you would swear what you’re seeing with your own eyes is real. This has to be a front runner for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars, amongst many things. Including, make up. From the pale bodies of the Harkonnen to the weather beaten calloused skin of the Fremen, this film as a showcase for make up artists much in the same vein that Mad Max: Fury Road was.

What will undoubtably be the make up break point for most people however is the narrative structure of the movie. This twisted story. For many, all the artistic beauty in the world that this movie puts on full display won’t mean a damn thing because they will simply not be able to get invested in the story at hand. Why? Well, that’s because many people will say it’s simply boring. While I will offer the contrary opinion in a moment, it is undeniable that this movie is incredibly patient with its structure. It is whimsical with how it explores its themes through lack of dialogue. No doubt that this will feel dull to many moviegoers. To me, I found it transfixing. The negative space between lines of dialogue only made me hang on the existing lines of dialogue even more. Every single word counts for so much. This also made the actions delivered by our characters that much more impactful. Every decision can be inspected and dissected under a microscope. This is a movie that breeds discussion. I loved the politics between feudal houses. I love the thematic representation of a class based society conflicts. The context of what is and is not ‘respect.’ the relationships between those that are both familiar and foreign to one another. Most of all, I like the idea of challenging your birthright. Your life, and your actions, are fully in your own hands. You are more than capable of making your own decisions to the detriment, or to the betterment, of you as an individual, and for the people in your life around you. You are capable of greatness, your own greatness, as you so choose it to be.

This movie does have a flaw however, and it’s a pretty glaring one. But, in many ways, it’s not the movie’s  fault. Simply put, this story is not over. However, we know that as the audience because this movie tells only half the story from a book that is almost 60 years old. This movie says right from the beginning in the title screen, Dune: Part One. I do feel this is a complete movie. Our main character is Paul, and Paul goes through a complete arc. By the end, he is a changed man, with more conviction in him than he’s ever had before. He has a fire in his gut that will guide him into the future, with more wisdom supporting him than he had at the beginning of the movie. That much is clear, and because of that this is a complete movie. But the story is not over. There’s no overarching resolution to the grander conflict. I’m left after this movie feeling a lot like I felt after leaving the theater following The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I have experienced greatness, but I yearn for so much more. What a tremendous achievement and great way to start this franchise. But I need more. We… need more. As an audience, we know that there is more story to be told. If Warner Bros. does not move forward with part two of this story it will be one of the greatest tragedies I could literally ever think of in the history of film. We deserve to see the ending of Villeneuve‘s vision. We deserve to see the ending of Paul’s story.

Dune is a sweeping epic that can, and should be, listed up there with the best of cinema and films of this scope in grandeur. This was easily one of the most anticipated movies of the year for many, myself included. Against all odds, the movie actually lives up to these expectations. And in many ways, exceeds them. I cannot wait to rewatch Dune again. Probably tonight…

Denis Villeneuve
Timothée Chalamet
Rebecca Ferguson
Oscar Isaac
Javier Bardem
2021 Most Anticipated
2021 First Watches
2020s Top 50

‘Top’ lists are as of posting the of this review. This, or any film, is subject to falling off as I see more films.

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