Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, is a film that I have been highly anticipating for over a year. I first became interested when the trailer was released in September of 2020. Since then, I have read the book and watched Villeneuve’s previous film, Blade Runner 2049. I absolutely loved both, which only heightened my expectations. The director's skill with science fiction concepts and visuals seemed perfect for the complex and expansive story of the source material.
Dune is one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen. I was lucky enough to see it in IMAX, an experience which I highly recommend. As in Blade Runner 2049, every shot feels deliberate and important. Although this condition means that the overall pace is somewhat slow, it allows for awe-inspiring scenes. One that comes to mind is the assassination attempt on Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). The scene is drawn out over two minutes, as focus shifts between Paul and the mosquito-like drone, frozen in a face-off. This is early symbolism of the precarious position the members of House Atreides find themselves in. Often, when a film tries to capture the immense size of massive objects such as spaceships, the CGI can take away from the immersion of the shot. However, I found that the CGI was never overwhelming, and the ships and machinery had a very grounded and realistic look. The climax of the film, a massive attack, captures devastation and scale without overwhelming the audience. Those visuals are what make the movie truly special.
Thematically speaking, Dune is extremely complex. The drug that makes the desert world of Arrakis (the film’s central setting) so valuable, melange, can be interpreted to symbolize oil in the Middle East. That element sets up clear connections between imperialism and the various royal houses mentioned in the film. While capturing the evils of imperialism on the side of the royal houses, there is greater gray area in the portrayal of the Fremen, the natives of Arrakis. In Paul’s prophetic visions, he sees himself leading the Fremen to jihad, which suggests themes of religious fanaticism. Resting in the middle of the two extremes is Paul, who appears to fit the white savior stereotype. This is one aspect of the film that I am not totally on board with. I appreciate the efforts to explore the dangers of both imperialism and religious fanaticism, but having only captured half of the story, Paul’s character is problematic. However, I will hold my judgments until the story is completed in part two.
One of the other aspects of the film that caught my attention a year ago was the cast. It is an extremely talented group, with Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Stellen Skarsgard, and Javier Bardem just to name a few. Chalamet is excellent at depicting the hero’s journey as Paul transitions from Duke’s son to potential Messiah. Stellan Skarsgard evokes Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now in his menacing performance as the Baron Harkonnen. Rebecca Ferguson impressively portrays the power and influence of Lady Jessica while also establishing an emotional connection with Paul. However, the most surprising performance was definitely Jason Momoa. In the past, his acting has been deemed one-dimensional. While his role as Duncan Idaho doesn’t stray far from his typical archetype, I found myself very attached to his portrayal of the character. The cast delivered in capturing the numerous complex relationships and motivations that provide the basis for the novel.
The most common criticisms of Dune seem to be about the pacing and where the movie ends. I understand both complaints, but personally, they weren’t a big deal to me. I suppose if you went into this movie expecting an explosion-based action film, you would be disappointed by the relatively slow and deliberate pace. However, because I have read the book, and I am familiar with Villeneuve's style, I was not put off by it. The slow pace allowed me to get more immersed in the film than if it had more traditional pacing.
Before the second part was confirmed, I was averse to the ending. It’s true that the movie feels incomplete. It’s difficult to get around the fact that the story requires a lot of exposition, and that we will have to wait until 2023 to see the culmination of the plot. However, now that the second part is canon, I am more at peace with how it ended.
It isn’t too often we get to see arthouse elements within a big-budget science fiction film, but Dune offers just that. Considering the fact that the novel comes with its own dictionary (which I referenced extensively as I read it, along with the online wiki page), it's easy to imagine the story getting away from even a very skilled director. However, Denis Villeneuve captured it in an accessible way that is still immensely satisfying for those familiar with the lore.