‘Dune’ Delivers An Elevated Blockbuster (Movie Review)

Dune, the much-anticipated epic, based on Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel, opens this weekend on the biggest (and smallest) screens in North America. As director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) has stated in interviews, anyone eager to drink in the vast desert vistas of the planet Arrakis, IMAX is the intended viewing experience. For those less inclined to venture out to theaters just yet, one hopes they at least have a big 4K TV to stream such a ginormous film on HBO Max. The all-star cast includes Timothy Chalamet, Oscar Issac, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, and even Aquaman himself, Jason Momoa, just to name a few. If you’re thinking, “HBO? Why isn’t this a series in the vein of Game of Thrones instead of a movie?” Well, for starters, I’d wager signing on the aforementioned cast of A-listers for several seasons of a series would not have been possible. But the real reason? This is big screen entertainment the likes of which Hollywood hasn’t attempted since arguably, Warner Bros’ own The Lord of the Rings trilogy two decades ago. Yes, I love the MCU like everyone else on planet Caladan… I mean Earth, but those movies aren’t even close to the scale of this project. Breathtaking set pieces, political intrigue, and the biggest space worms ever await on Arrakis, Dune, the desert planet…

Okay, so what exactly is Dune about? The year is 10,191. The known universe is ruled by a galactic empire. A precious substance called “spice” is needed for interstellar space travel and can only be harvested on, you guessed it, Arrakis, the desert planet known as Dune. A young man named Paul Atreides (Chalamet), the son of Duke Leto (Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), will soon venture to this barren world. Yet Jessica has raised Paul in the ways of the Bene Gesserit Sisters, a religious order that practice The Voice, a kind of mind control. Paul is young, naive, and prophesied to become the messiah. As this is science fiction, Paul has been engineered to be this chosen one. Chalamet is perfect for the role of a likable teen with an ample amount of angst.

There are those with far more extensive knowledge on Herbert’s series of books, as well as David Lynch’s notorious 1984 adaptation, and even the 2000s’ SyFy series. It is absolutely unnecessary to do any research to enjoy this 2021 update but just know there are countless sites on the interwebs if one is so inclined. Full disclosure: I have tried (and failed) several times over the years to read the book. I did recently enjoy Lynch’s gooey, pulpy 80s version starring Kyle MacLachlan, featuring music by Toto. Fun times. Alas, as marvelous as Villeneuve’s update may be, there is no PowerPoint presentation opener.

At its heart, the script by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth is a knowing look at colonialism but with the whiz-bang thrills of a sci-fi war backdrop. In between, there are several political discussions (thrilling in their own way), metallic dragonfly ships, cool individualized force-shields, and killer drones. Hand-to-hand battles are peppered throughout, with Momoa delivering an engaging Flash Gordon level of enthusiasm to each of his scenes as Duncan Idaho.

Like the best kinds of epics, the focus stays on merely a few characters – sometimes just one – with shot compositions nearly too big for even an IMAX screen. Thus, the images feel as limitless as Herbert’s imagination. The landscape of sandy terrains has been immortalized in cinema, most notably in David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia. Even with high standards like the Peter O’Toole starrer, Villeneuve and cinematographer Greg Fraser (Rogue One) create their own eye candy within their sandboxes. Often giant spaces are juxtaposed with humans against the endlessly tall skies or the vast sand dunes. Even the architecture of concrete military bases are at once impenetrable and freeing. Where Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning photography in Blade Runner 2049 was a symphony of competing colors amongst metropolitan chaos, Dune is almost always otherworldly.

A big part of that otherworldly-ness must be attributed to Hans Zimmer’s score. Through atonal percussion and an international didgeridoo-like vibe, aural sounds are a treat for the ears. Interestingly, one audio feature absent is the constant voiceover that was famously featured to the chagrin of critics in Lynch’s version. For the most part, it’s much less intrusive to have Chalamet not talking to himself in a whispered tone, though I did sometimes miss this artifact of the 80s.

To fill in for exposition are Paul’s waking dreams. This makes up the bulk of Zendaya’s appearance as Chani. She is the better pick as the film’s narrator, even compared to Virginia Madsen’s efforts as Princess Irulan in the previous movie. Villeneuve intends Zendaya’s character to have a more central role in Part 2, so this is a good start. With that in mind, she and Chalamet, as expected, have good chemistry in their brief scenes together. We’ll have to wait for the sequel (fingers crossed) to see more of that.

The film’s emotional heart is the relationship between Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica, played by the always engaging Ferguson (Doctor Sleep). In an era that has seen many troubled dads and daughter types (my personal fav being The Last of Us), it’s refreshing to see a dynamic in Dune concerning a wary mother and her still maturing son. As much as a film nerd like yours truly could just love the incredible aesthetics of Dune, it’s a big win that I was just as emotionally invested.

On the flip side of the mother/son bond is the villainous House Harkonnen led by The Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), with his war-hungry nephew (Dave Bautista) at his side. The Baron is a formidable, angry, and sometimes just plain gross antagonist. Skarsgard delivers interesting line readings to what is essentially a pulpy foil. He’s just as much a force of nature as the giant sandworms, unruly yet impressive in size.

A film of this scope is rarely perfect, although honestly, I don’t have any crucial complaints with one viewing under my belt. Some of the political stuff can be a little dry, I suppose. As a new 21st-century adaptation, Villeneuve’s shiny new achievement is perhaps a little too close to Lynch’s (for the half that’s been shot, anyway). Finally, dramatically, the fate of Part 1 is in desperate need of a follow-up. Still, little of this takes away from the breathtaking spectacle I witnessed. Officially titled Dune: Part 1, here’s hoping this little indie from WB finds an audience, so Dune: Part 2 is greenlit stat!


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