By Elias Savada.
Sure, it’s loud and possibly confusing for those viewers who haven’t tapped into the 1965 text…. But this go round [for the screen], all cylinders are firing.”
Ah, the wide-screen grandeur that is Dune! All that sand makes me relish the epic 70mm moments more than a half-century ago when I savored every second of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia in its 222-minute glory. (Dune runs but 155 minutes, but this is just Part One; as the poster art proclaims, “It Begins.”) Yup, this might be the big one this year, ripe for awards and such, and a film that everyone should soak in at an IMAX theater rather than on a puny living room or, worse, computer, screen, as it also streams on HBO Max. This immensely entertaining adaptation of the Frank Herbert science fiction classic finally arrives a month after it began playing in foreign multiplexes (and a pandemic-delayed year when it was supposed to arrive). For those of you who just ventured back from the cinema for No Time to Die, please turn back there for a real broody, cerebral punch from this star-studded, emotionally driven, and very expensively looking journey to distant worlds from director Denis Villeneuve.
The Canadian filmmaker’s Arrival was my favorite film of 2016, and his dystopian Blade Runner 2049 (2017) was a stunning sequel to Ridley Scott’s original. The majestic Dune experience takes him further into the pantheon of the great auteurs, including Lean. Firing on all professional guns, just as he did with the intimate Arrival, but now adding a constantly oversized spectacle to his repertoire, it’s hard to find any fault with this extravagant venture. Sure, it’s loud and possibly confusing for those viewers who haven’t tapped into the 1965 text that is considered one of the most impressive works in the genre. David Lynch tried to tackle the source material in 1984. He failed, leaving many critics and viewers wondering if the novel was even filmable. This go round, all cylinders are firing, with the technical side (profusely enabled by the many folks who worked with him on his more recent works) blending exquisitely with the screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Villeneuve and Oscar winner Eric Roth (Forrest Gump).
I haven’t read the book since the early 1970s and the film succeeds just as well for folks who haven’t turned any of its 800 pages than for the many fans. If you’ve seen Avatar, there’s a similar theme of indigenous population exploitation on an alien world. Here the underdogs are the Fremen, tribal inhabitants of the oppressively hot and sand-covered planet Arrakis. Little seen in this film, but certainly set up for a big part in the second installment (which Warner Bros. has reportedly only just been greenlit), these blue-eyed humans live underground and have a reverence for the massive sandworms that roam about this barren world.
The interplanetary empire has harvested Spice, a rare resource found there, and the the mining rights have been gifted to House Atreides of the planet Caladan during the film’s opening hour, and they set about travelling there with obedient haste. There are numerous factions being set in place, and duplicity is par for the course, yet the Atreides put their best foot forward as they arrive to restart the mining operation.
Locations in Hungary, Jordan, Abu Dhabi, and Norway offer stunning landscapes befitting of other worlds, enhanced by Greig Fraser’s cinematography and Patrice Vermette’s production design.”
That’s enough of the story that the uninitiated viewer should need. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Ogle at Timothée Chalamet, as Paul, heir to the Atreides throne. His mysterious dreams foretell ominous events and perhaps his future as a possible savior for the oppressed. His strong-willed mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) counsels him constantly, while his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), appears to be one of the few honest rulers left in the universe. Chalamet is especially strong as the unsure youngster growing up too soon for his liking, but eventually channels all the added responsibilities tossed his way with great aplomb. Josh Brolin impresses as the Atreides’ head of security, while Jason Momoa adds a touch of levity as the great warrior Duncan Idaho. On the evil side there is the malevolent Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a physical cross between Jabba the Hutt and Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. A nearly unrecognizable Stellan Skarsgård, behind massive layers of makeup, oozes bile to the darkest degree as he carries out a horrendous plan. His loathsome body has eerie floating capabilities, and it’s a tremendous performance among many in the film. Perhaps the weakest showing is from Zendaya, who portrays a fierce Fremen named Chani. Her screen presence is mostly limited to Paul’s visions, so I can’t blame her for just drifting by in slow motion. While some of the cast make unfortunate departures during the film, Chani’s rise to prominence as Paul’s concubine hopefully will let her acting legs get stretched more in the next film.
Locations in Hungary, Jordan, Abu Dhabi, and Norway offer stunning landscapes befitting of other worlds, enhanced by Greig Fraser’s cinematography and Patrice Vermette’s production design. Visual and special effects, sound design, costumes, editing, and a rowdy humdinger of a score by Hans Zimmer all provide just what you expect from a spectacle like Dune. It’s sensational. Thank you, Mr. Villeneuve.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).