A film review by Craig J. Koban November 1, 2021

DUNE jjj

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 Mapes

Directed 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.  

Largely 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: 

Does Villeneuve 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 Lynch iteration.  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 of structure.  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 here.  Still, 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. 

DUNE's overall 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 be found).



This is 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 big way).  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 watched.  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 to overstate.  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 elements.  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. 

Speaking of 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. 

DUNE is also a cold film.  With the exception of Momoa (who appears to be the only cast member having unbridled fun on screen), I wish that I emotionally latched on to the characters more here.  The actors all are enthusiastically dedicated to their roles and definitely augment the experience, but much of DUNE is dramatically inert at times, and when the narrative slumps in terms of momentum in its final thirty minutes you can sense the film lumbering around in search of purpose.  I wanted to be moved by Villeneuve's story as much as my imagination was stirred by the imagery on display.  Make no mistake about it, DUNE is a staggering creative achievement on so many fundamental levels, and as a cinematic introduction (or re-introduction) to Herbert's novels it's perhaps the best possible interpretation of this world we'll likely ever see.  It's also a work that legitimately makes viewers yearn for a follow-up entry (which was just given the green light...thank the spice gods) even though the build-up to said sequel hits some stumbling blocks.  As an otherworldly extravaganza, DUNE is a triumphant sci-fi magnum opus that will be dissected for years to come.  But, alas, this is undeniably an unfinished productIt's certainly - ahem! - a weirding way to helm an adaptation such as this (and with no guarantee of a sequel beforehand and with nothing shot in the can for a Part 2), but this will do fine. 

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