DUNE (Movie Review)

Director Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited DUNE is a singular sci-fi achievement.

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13

(for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material)
Released: October 15, 2021
Runtime: 155 minutes
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothée
 Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Javier Bardem, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Dave Bautista, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chen Chang, Charlotte Rampling

Dune is the streaming killer. Or at least is should be.

A bravura sci-fi opus writ on a mammoth scale, director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of author Frank Herbert’s seminal work is, both in ambition and grandeur, truly one of a kind. As if mashing Blade Runner with Lawrence of Arabia, Villeneuve takes us to a place no film has before, not simply to another galaxy and time but another dimension altogether. That epic, other-worldly aura isn’t just visual but sensory, haunted by a soundscape that is operatic and ominous.

This collective aesthetic is of a piece that, while clearly a vision of Villeneuve (director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049), is genuinely fresh and original. His Dune doesn’t come off as a Star Wars rip-off Game of Thrones-in-Space rehash but, rather, like the standard those myths (and so many others) aspire to match – which its source is. Villeneuve has risen to it.

Based on the book tagged as unfilmable (with case studies being David Lynch’s mocked 1984 bomb and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed effort from the early 70s), Villeneuve seems to have finally cracked it for the big screen – and for IMAX especially, filming several sequences in the format’s branded cameras and lenses.

Gone is the bulk of the politicking between the two dominant clans of this story’s Galactic Padishah Empire – House Atreides (the good guys) and House Harkonnen (the bad guys) – and the Imperium Emperor who schemes as a Phantom Menace between the two (his presence unseen here, but definitely felt). While those political machinations are what fascinates many Dune fans, it’s also the most obvious element to simplify from a work too dense for feature-length narrative.

Villeneuve does a superb job of crafting a tidy, efficient introduction that nutshells this dynamic, keeping the film from getting bogged down in too much exposition. He then adds more information organically as the story unfolds. Also, Villeneuve only tells half the story. As the actual on-screen title says, this is Dune: Part One. (Dune: Part Two will soon follow, as it has just been recently greenlit by the studio.)

With the political maneuvering trimmed, Villeneuve focuses on the core conflict and the characters at its center, namely the leaders of House Atreides — Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and their son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) – and House Harkonnen, ruled by the obese sloth Baron Vladimir (Stellen Skarsgård) and his nephew Beast Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista).

Caught between the two houses are Fremen, the indigenous people of Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune, the desert planet that alone possesses the only resource (a specific spice) that makes interstellar transport possible. Atreides and Harkonnen are pitted against each other in a power struggle for Arrakis, and the Fremen are the oppressed collateral who have remained resilient in survival.

Raising the stakes of how this complex conflict could resolve is that Paul Atreides may very well be the Freman’s prophesied savior. In this possibility, Dune distinguishes itself from other Chosen One legends and archetypes (Luke Skywalker, Neo, et al). Indeed, as a prototype, Paul’s status as would-be Messiah feels more substantial than others that have followed, in part because his potential has been eugenicized by insidious design and not destined by fate alone.

The implications of that (and its origins) bring a depth and tension that other, more inevitable Chosen One arcs lack.

There, too, is how Villeneuve portrays the story’s mysticism, which ends up being one of the film’s most compelling layers, rooted in the religious order of the Bene Gesserit, a calculating monastic order of women of which Paul’s mother Jessica is a member. Their spirituality is mysterious and formidable, as fascinating as it is chilling, dangerous yet awesome — and palpable.

Its contrasted with the pure piety of the Freman, a people dedicated to their scriptures, the sustaining power of their traditions, and the hope of the One who is to come.

For as much as Villeneuve’s visionary scope makes Dune a landmark of sci-fi cinema in its own right, it’s this spirituality (and how he conjures it) that becomes the movie’s most unexpected strength. It’s what informs every layer of subtext that this stalwart cast brings to bear (Chalamet and Ferguson especially, but also Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chen Chang and Charlotte Rampling in key supporting roles).

As the film transitions from the events of Part One and towards the events to come in Part Two, the final half-hour does begin to drag. Even so, it crescendos to a defining climax that, in itself, should compel Warner Bros to see this magnificent achievement through to its end.

Despite being available on HBO Max, this Dune warrants a big screen engagement as much as any movie possibly can, and in the grandest premium arena available. While its mesmerizing force will likely translate into any format, this Dune has the power to transport and overwhelm when experienced as it was intended to be. Let it.

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