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Dune Review

October 22, 2021 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
DUNE Timothee Chalamet Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
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Dune Review  

Directed By: Denis Villeneuve
Written By: Denis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth; Based on the novel and characters created by Frank Herbert
Runtime: 155 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material

Timothée Chalamet – Paul Atreides
Oscar Isaac – Duke Leto Atreides
Rebecca Ferguson – Lady Jessica Atreides
Jason Momoa – Duncan Idaho
Josh Brolin – Gurney Halleck
Stellan Skarsgård – Baron Vladimir Harkonnen
Dave Bautista – Glossu Rabban Harkonnen
Charlotte Rampling – Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam
David Dastmalchian – Piter de Vries
Stephen McKinley Henderson – Thufir Hawat
Chen Chang – Dr. Wellington Yueh
Sharon Duncan-Brewster – Dr. Liet Kynes
Zendaya – Chani
Javier Bardem – Stilgar
Babs Olusanmokun – Jamis
Neil Bell – Bashar
Golda Rosheuvel – Shadout Mapes
Benjamin Clémentine – Herald of the Change

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

– The Litany Against Fear, from Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune is the magnum opus of author Frank Herbert. First published in 1965, the award-winning book is a masterpiece. While it may not have invented the space opera, it’s certainly one of the most significant examples in sci-fi literature. Dune is the gold standard for fictional world-building and mythology by which all others should be measured. With Dune, Frank Herbert didn’t just tell the story of the young, noble Paul Atreides. He also created a whole history around an alternative future for humanity, set eons after the present day. Dune is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. While there have been multiple motion picture adaptations of Herbert’s saga in the past, most notably David Lynch’s 1984 attempt, renowned filmmaker Denis Villeneuve offers his latest attempt with the long-delayed Dune feature.

Eons into the future, after humanity has already undergone a mass rejection of advanced AI and somewhat of a renaissance, the known universe is colonized and ruled by a feudal system of royal houses. Due to past events making the invention and utilization of “thinking machines” taboo, humanity instead sought to strengthen their minds as a substitute, leading to the creation of the Mentat Order, the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. The Spacing Guild and its navigators are responsible for overseeing interstellar space travel, made possible thanks to a substance known as the Spice Melange, aka the Spice. The Spice can only be found and mined from the inhospitable desert planet Arrakis, or Dune.

Among the royal houses is the noble and honorable House Atreides, rulers of planet Caladan and led by Duke Leto Atreides (Isaac). For years, Arrakis and its indigenous people, the Fremen, have suffered at the heel of House Atreides’ archrival, the vicious House Harkonnen. Strangely enough, the universe’s emperor, Padisham IV, has opted to shift course with Dune, demoting House Harkonnen from their failed stewardship of Arrakis and instead granting the fiefdom to Duke Leto. Now, the onus of mining the Spice and bringing peace between the royal houses and the Fremen falls on Duke Leto. However, House Corrino’s gift of stewardship of Arrakis to House of Atreides is not the gift it appears, but the start of a deadly conspiracy that could mean the ruin of Duke Leto’s family line.

Son to Duke Leto and his former Bene Gesserit consort, Lady Jessica (Ferguson), is Paul Atreides (Chalamet). Even before the family commutes to Arrakis, Paul is already plagued by prescient dreams of the planet, some of which hold an ill omen for his closest friends and House Atreides subjects. Duke Leto charges top operative, Duncan Idaho (Momoa), to chart an advance mission to Arrakis to contact the Fremen in attempts to forge a peaceful alliance between the two groups. While Paul is Duke Leto’s heir, he’s trained for action by the stern and stoic Atreides Warmaster Gurney Halleck (Brolin). Paul is certainly his father’s son, but his mother’s as well. Lady Jessica once belonged to a mysterious order of the Bene Gesserit, whose goals don’t necessarily align with that of House Atreides and appear to have far-reaching plans. Thanks to his mother, Paul is attempting to fine-tune extra-sensory abilities pioneered by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood.

Arrakis was no mere gift by the Emperor. On an unforgiving desert planet with no water, adversaries for House Atreides are apparent on all sides. However, on Arrakis, there exists talk of a messiah, or Madhi, who will free the Fremen from oppression and make Arrakis into a lush paradise. Paul’s arrival on Dune appears to be prophetic to its natives. With a deadly trap about to be sprung, young Paul Atreides could be the key to unlocking Arrakis.

Despite its flaws, it’s unlikely that any director other than Denis Villeneuve could have pulled off Dune. At the very least, he respects the grandeur and elegance of this classic story. The visuals at work here are jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring. The spaceships look like giant, cocoon-like structures that fill up the entire screen. They look like they were ripped from the covers of the books, with giant gaping hatches. Every penny of the film’s $165+ million budget, from the Ornithopters to Shai-Hulud, is shown onscreen. Villeneuve has brought the world of Frank Herbert to life, and it’s never looked better. Villeneuve, cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette not only achieve the visual ambition of Dune but an amazing level of verisimilitude, even down to the desert’s flora and fauna, such as a little mouse that’s able to survive the harshest of conditions.

The cast’s two biggest standouts are easily Oscar Isaac as Leto and Timothée Chalamet as Paul. Isaac’s honorable Leto is an aspirational, yet tragic figure. It’s easy to see why he’s beloved by his subjects and inspires such fervent loyalty. He’s a man of reason, the compassionate and wise leader whom everyone wants. Unfortunately, it’s that very leadership that has made him an object of hatred for his adversaries who want nothing more than to destroy his entire line. Isaac perfectly depicts Leto’s nobility, his love for his friends, and his sincerity in his attempts to lead Arrakis to a better future, without naïveté in the fate that awaits House Atreides if they fail. Isaac captures the necessary gravitas for Leto.

Among today’s crop of young actors, Timothée Chalamet was the only choice for Paul. His personality is refreshing, and he’s smart enough to be aware of the danger surrounding himself and his family. Paul is desperate to help, yet he’s not necessarily the best experienced to know how. Chalamet takes Paul from his very roots and shows the start of his grand journey from a young, upstart noble to someone who will become something more. Chalamet’s performance has a sweet, believable innocence; but beneath that innocence, there’s genuine fear, a fear that Paul must eventually face and let pass through him.

The more notable performances among the supporting cast are the smaller, more tertiary roles, such as Stephen McKinley Henderson as Atreides chief Mentat Thufir Hawat, Chen Chang as Atreides physician Dr. Wellington Yueh and David Dastmalchian as the Harkonnen stooge, Piter de Vries. They are proof that there are no small parts. They all bring a unique energy to each of their characters and offer texture to this unique view of the future. Javier Bardem also makes the most of his screentime as the Fremen leader Stilgar, but his performance in this film demonstrates that it’s not yet his time to shine.

Brolin captures the more serious nature of Gurney Halleck quite well. Unfortunately, the movie does not get to show his softer side, along with his love for music and the baliset. This exemplifies one of the unfortunate aspects of cinematic adaptations for dense sci-fi literature.

The producers and writers felt it was necessary to justify Jason Momoa’s casting as Duncan Idaho, who is better described as Duncan Ida-bro. Idaho’s role is significantly beefed up a bit too much. In this role, expanding a character role to fit the actor doesn’t work. It would be preferable for the actor to bring the character of Idaho to life. Aquaman is Duncan Idaho, so he needs more screentime, fight scenes and cool one-liners. Gurney can’t play his baliset, but Duncan needs to be shown killing lots more enemies.

While the movie’s production design and visuals are top-notch, there are a couple of instances where the movie does not meet its full visual ambition. The pain box scene, a pivotal scene straight out of the book’s opening chapter, looks even less inspiring than the 2000 Sci-Fi TV miniseries. Secondly, Paul never even gets to recite the Litany Against Fear even once. The way the scene plays out in the film focuses more on Lady Jessica, which undercuts Paul’s journey and struggle.

Additionally, it can also be seen where the shadow of Blade Runner 2049‘s weak box office looms large over Villeneuve. There are many giant spaceships in Dune, but they are only depicted in orbit or just before take-off. There’s no depiction of Spacing Guild navigators, no actual interstellar space travel or visualization for how the navigators plot course through space. These are the parts where Villeneuve plays it safe with Dune, when he really should not have. These concepts make Dune pure sci-fi, and the production really should have gone all out and shown them onscreen.

What is commendable in the favor of Villeneuve, who co-wrote the script with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, is that a good chunk of the book’s initial half remains in the film. While not an exceptional word for word adaptation of the book, it does make a better attempt at adapting the source material despite multiple hiccups. That said, there is one significant instance where Villeneuve breaks the “show, don’t tell rule,” showing the cards of a certain major development a little too early. One particular line came off as a bit patronizing, like Villeneuve had to make sure the audience understands what’s going on, not trusting more casual moviegoers.

The biggest problem with Dune is that it cannot adapt the entire first novel. At two hours and 35 minutes, the film is already at a copious length. The pacing is not bad at all considering the length and such dense material. The unfortunate part is the movie abruptly ends. Subplots that are developed and introduced are left dangling without significant payoff.

The ending point Villeneuve and his co-writers opted for came out rather clumsy. It omits one of Paul’s best and most pivotal moments after significant screentime was dedicated to creating that moment. It’s possible this moment might come up again in a later movie adapting the rest of the book, but there’s still no guarantee that movie will even happen. That is the pitfall of ending a movie in the middle of a story and having to make the middle portion a third act for an already long movie, betting on the hope there will be enough interest to finish it later.

The result is that Dune feels incomplete. Hopefully, things will play out much better if the planned sequel does happen, but it feels like cheating to make a movie this way. On the other hand, the positive takeaway from this choice leaves the audience anxious for more.

While much of Hans Zimmer’s work as a composer has largely been uninspired over the course of the last decade, his score for Dune is his best work in years. It actually sounds unique, grand and epic. Once it moves to Arrakis, the themes sound fitting and immense. This is not a lazy piece of phoned in work this time around for Zimmer.

Regardless of some specific plotting and casting missteps, there is fine artistry at work in this take on Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi saga and one of the greatest novels ever written. At the very least, it’s a valiant effort in bringing pure sci-fi to the screen with the necessary epic grandeur. Dune is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen at least once.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Dune is an exceptional, big-budget sci-fi spectacle, with amazing production values, high-level acting performances and grand visuals by director Denis Villeneuve. It's a strong effort at crafting big-screen adaptation for one of the greatest sci-fi sagas in history. It falls short as a masterpiece due to some select writing missteps and casting choices. There's also the question mark whether the film franchise will continue or not. However, WarnerMedia's shift toward streaming with HBO Max is possibly a sign that the chances for a sequel will improve with less hopes pinned to box office dollars and cents. While the stopping point was abrupt, it does at least leave the anticipation toward wanting the rest of Paul's journey, which will hopefully continue and one day reach its grand conclusion.