2021, PG-13, 155 mins.
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides / Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica / Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides / Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck / Zendaya as Chani / Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen / Dave Bautista as Beast Rabban / Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Kynes / Stephen Henderson as Thufir Hawat / Chang Chen as Dr. Wellington Yueh / David Dastmalchian as Piter De Vries / Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Mohiam / Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho / Javier Bardem as Stilgar / Golda Rosheuvel as Shadout MapesDirected by Denis Villeneuve / Written by Villeneuve, Eric Roth, and Jon Spaihts, based on the Frank Herbert novel
What a bold and thankless task it was for French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (or any filmmaker, for that matter) to helm a silver screen adaptation of the legendarily unfilmable 1965 Frank Herbert sci-fi novel DUNE.
considered to be alone in the upper echelon of the genre (and a series of
novels whose influence on countless other sci-fi/fantasy properties -
including STAR WARS - cannot
be understated), previous attempts to capture the limitless complexities
of Herbert's dense storytelling in movie form have been a mixed bag to say
the least (from Alejandro Jodorowsky's failed - but visionary and trippy -
attempts in the 1970s to David Lynch's notoriously incomprehensible, yet
eclectically stylish box office bomb from 1984 to a series of fairly well
respected made for TV mini-series efforts).
Now, the highly capable Villeneuve steps in, who has not only
emerged as one of the finest working directors around, but one that has
already sunk his teeth rather successfully into the sci-fi genre (ARRIVAL
and BLADE RUNNER 2049).
That, and most importantly of all, he's a self-professed DUNE-aholic.
So now, the question remains:
crack the difficult cinematic code of making a worthwhile adaptation of
Herbert's beloved novel?
The answer is
kind of as labyrinthine as the book itself.
Bare with me.
On a level of
pure world/universe building and production design, Villeneuve's DUNE is
an unqualified masterpiece and is ambitious in every facet of its
design...like, ferociously ambitious.
On top of that, one thing that it does exceptionally well in the
script department (from Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) is in how
it dishes out expositional particulars to viewers in a way that feels
organic and comprehensible; it relays the sheer density of this vast
universe in a much clearer capacity than the borderline slumber inducing
Compellingly - and some my say oddly - though, DUNE is officially
titled DUNE: PART 1 (which perplexingly was never a part of the
marketing), and the film most certainly feels like one long prologue
that's building towards future sequels.
Sometimes, DUNE doesn't entirely work as a standalone film in terms
It awkwardly feels like two acts without a third and, in its
current form, has the facade of a film that's desperate to be a LORD OF
THE RINGS-esque, three-hour-plus epic that's weirdly truncated, leaving
viewers with a nagging sensation that we simply don't have a complete epic
Villeneuve deserves full props for attempting the near impossible of
making a coherent adaptation of Herbert's insanely difficult to translate
material, even though a supremely assured director like him still manages
to struggle at times with taming it.
story will be familiar to the legion of the novel's devotees, but I can
easily see how lay filmgoers could get lost in it all, which makes a plot
synopsis here a tad difficult, but I'll endeavor to try.
The film is set in the distant (make that really distant)
future of 10,191 and reveals a GAME OF THRONES-like tale of warring
planets and governments that battle over the space spice melange, which is
not only the most valuable item in the entire galaxy, but is also a key
substance that (a) allows interstellar travel between planets and
(b) has lifespan extending effects on top of altering the consciences of
those using it.
One of the aforementioned governments is House Atreides, which has
its base of operations on the Earth-like Caladan and is ruled over by Duke
Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), who has been asked by the Emperor of the
known universe to journey to the desert planet of Arrakis to oversee spice
mining and its development (this is the only planet that the substance can
complicated by the fact that the Duke's sworn historical enemies in the
malicious House Harkonnen (led by the Jabba the Hutt in humanoid form that
is Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, played chillingly by the unrecognizable Stellan
Skarsgård) once had a base
of operations on Arrakis and milked the planet for everything it was worth
alongside terrorizing the indigenous Fremen people.
The Duke nevertheless accepts his newly appointed mission with
appropriate levels of duty and honor, taking his concubine with him in
Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a "Bene Gesserit" witch that
has mind control powers (you can see the influence on the Force here in a
Also tagging along with them are two of Leto's most loyal warriors
in Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) as well as
the Duke's young son in Paul (Timothee Chalamet), who has perplexingly
been having visions of a strange young Fremen woman, leading his mother to
think that he might a chosen one/super being of Bene Gesserit prophesies.
Initially, when the Duke and his clan arrive on Arrakis all seems
well, but it gradually becomes clear that the Emperor - and House
Harkonnen - may violently spoil their party.
I have vivid
memories of my first exposure to Lynch's DUNE in the mid-80s and the
struggles I had to navigate through it as an outsider to Herbert's novel
(I never made it through my first viewing from beginning to end), but the
disciplined screenplay from Villeneuve and company here should be
commended for achieving the Herculean feat of establishing the multiple
planets, Houses of rule, characters, and power play dynamics that exit
between them all with relative fluidity and without bombarding audience
members to the point of confusion.
This is a thoroughly easy DUNE adaptation to follow and understand,
but it should be noted that Villeneuve isn't stripping Herbert's book down
to simplistic bastardization levels.
Paring down the novel was obviously in order, but you still gain an
evocative sense of the sheer size of this rich universe and the political
struggles that typify it.
Achieving this was no easy feat whatsoever. I think that
obsessive followers of Herbert's work will undoubtedly feel appeased here,
but as for the rest of us uninitiated in this literary series there should
be no need to panic going in for fear of feeling hopelessly lost as an
outsider while processing this world.
What struck me so
profoundly about this DUNE, though, was the unfathomable ambition, visual
dynamism and pure craft that has gone into building Herbert's world from
the ground up.
Like STAR WARS and the LORD OF THE RINGS film franchises before it,
DUNE is an epic to be actively experienced, not passively
It belongs on a very short list of films of transcending power in
terms of out-of-body immersion: As pure escapism, I felt less conscious of
my cinema surroundings while watching it because I was so sucked into the
universe presented here, and all to the point where I felt a part of it.
The bravura technical achievements on chief display here are hard
Villeneuve - teamed up with cinematographer Creig Fraser and
production designer Patrice Vermette - gives us a film that's so generous
in its enrapturing details.
Whether it be the vast lushness of planet Caladan or the oppressive
and rugged beauty of the deadly sand and rock covered vistas of Arrakis,
the sheer enormity elicits legitimate sensations of awe and wonder.
Great care and attention went into the most minute and massive
I loved the appearance of the futuristic helicopters that look like
mechanized dragonflies come to life.
Also impressive is the sensationally macabre makeup design to
transform Skarsgård into the massive
gravity defying villain that evokes legitimate chills.
And, on a bigger scope, even the sandworm creatures that populate
the Arrakis desserts have an unimaginable level of size and weight here.
In Lynch's version they looked like phony hand puppets (obviously,
a VFX limitation of the era), but here they have a tangible and towering
sense of both majesty and terror.
Everything in DUNE is striking, and unlike so many other genre
attempts as of late, this world feels real and lived in.
It would be easy
to overlook the cast and the performances in such a feast for the senses
such as this, but Villeneuve was cunning enough to cast his film with an
impeccable eye and gets solid work out of the ensemble so that the
characters compliment what's on screen.
Isaac brings an immediate sense of imposing regality as his Duke,
and Rebecca Ferguson is pitch perfectly cast as the resilient, spiritually
powerful, yet emotional vulnerable Jessica.
Josh Brolin carries a no-nonsense toughness (don't ask him to
smile) to his military trainer, and AQUAMAN
himself in Jason Momao gives DUNE some much needed warmth (more on that in
a bit) as his easily likeable, but incredibly deadly warrior.
Timothee Chalamet looks impossibly young for his age (at 25, he's
just 13 years younger than his on-screen mother in Ferguson, but easily
passes for a teenage hero here), and his take on Paul - destined to be a
figure of gigantic significance - hits all of the right beats, especially
for showing his character's youthful folly on top of coming to grips with
prophesies that weigh heavy on his soul.
I'm not entirely sure that I buy the relatively scrawny Chalamet as
a fierce and dexterous hand-to-hand combatant, but on an emotional level
he's fully credible as his messiah-to-be protagonist.
There are, of
course, a handful of other characters introduced here that (based on the
sheer magnitude of the material) are a bit marginalized.
Ones that stick out are Charlotte Rampling's memorable, but all too
brief turn as a Mother Bene Gesserit of immense power that puts Paul
through his paces.
There's also Javier Bardem and Dave Bautista, both quite good in
their supporting turns as a Fremen chief and the Baron's monstrous, bald,
and eyebrow-less nephew respectively.
Then there's the character of Chani, the Fremen girl of Paul's hallucinogenic
fever dreams, played in a blink-or-you'll-miss-her cameo by Zendaya, who
appears arguably as much in the somewhat falsely advertised trailer for
this film as she does in the film itself.
She figured so heavily in the advertising campaign for DUNE and
press tours that I can see how some of her fans might be mightily let down
by her limited screen time here that will obviously be paid off
(hopefully) in DUNE: PART 2.
parts, the reveal that DUNE is actually a Part 1 may confuse some
viewers going in cold, especially for those expecting a fully fledged film
with a beginning, middle, and end.
It has always been Villeneuve's intentions to split the massive 600
page DUNE novel into two separate features (makes sense), which allows for
the introduction to Herbert's characters and world to work so well here.
Unfortunately, this choice paradoxically also works against DUNE
from feeling fully formed.
This is an origin story, to be sure, but it's abundantly - and
sometimes frustratingly - clear that this DUNE lacks a proper ending
altogether, and at an appropriate runtime of two and a half hours it's
somewhat discouraging to see Villeneuve hit the pause button and roll to
the end credits.
This film stops at a point when key subplots and character dynamics
are just starting to percolate, which forces me to ask a rather logical
question as to whether or not DUNE should have just abandoned the Part 1/2
structure and elongated itself to one three-plus hour epic to give us a
fully formed movie.
DUNE wholeheartedly and confidently succeeds as an experience (and
one to be savored in the largest cinema possible), but as a structured
movie it doesn't feel whole.
This is a great film...until it gets cut off from viewers just when
they're asking for more.