Villeneuve's long-awaited science fiction extravaganza might be deeply flawed, but it does not disappoint. A spoiler-free review.
Spoiler notice: this review references minor plot points and scenarios, and gives some basic background info on the story and world of Dune, but does not spoil any twists, reveals, or major events in the plot.
Alongside No Time To Die (2021), Dune (2021) heralds the opening back up of cinema. A gift for cinema fans who have been deprived of big budget movie treats for almost two years.
It’s an epic science fiction tale that is sweeping, spectacular, and overflowing with grandeur. A space adventure in a universe fans have been hoping to see portrayed in movie form again since David Lynch’s shockingly disastrous (though in some ways, weirdly wonderful) attempt in 1984.
Yes, many have been waiting thirty-seven years, not just one year and change. Almost half a century. And if you date back to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed production in the mid-1970s, the potential of which is brilliantly documented in Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014), it is half a century waiting for a movie that does Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel justice.
Fifty-six years after the first novel’s publication, we have a movie that exists and is worth serious attention. Dune has new life.
Ultra Big Screen
Denis Villeneuve's Dune is breathtakingly grand. Cavernous sets dwarf the star-studded cast and create a towering visual spectacle. It's also a movie that plays things very much on the safe side. In some ways, it's a counter-reaction to Lynch's 1980s explosion of absurd, cheesy, over-the-top madness and creative excess. It feels more sensibly and practically assembled than forged by artistic passion or love of the material.
Regardless, it succeeds where other great filmmakers have failed and, despite flaws, comes out on top.
The film is cinematic in the biggest sense of “big screen.” Ultra big screen. In the theatre, at points it inspires childlike awe and heightened suspension of disbelief. Not because of the special effects, exactly (I have some issues with the CG), more the sum of the parts going into the production of a fictional world so detailed and goddamn vast.
Movies on this scale come along every so often, but each time one reaches the lofty extraterrestrial stratosphere of science fiction world-building, which is how Dune was rated by the internationally-recognised classification board of World Building, it has a similar effect. The brain expands a bit when taking in a colossal fictional world for the first time. It engages the imagination in a way other movies do not. It is, in short, very impressive, and a special kind of theatre viewing. For that reason this is an event film that, if you have any interest in science fiction, you dare not miss.
In recent years there has been the Star Wars sequel trilogy, the Alien prequel films, the Planet of The Apes reboot series, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014), Arrival (2016), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) - the last two directed by the very same Denis Villeneuve in the driving seat here. So there's been a bunch of big, impressive science fiction releases in the not-too-distant past.
Dune (2021) is the first since Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), though, that put me in the mind of a child in the theatre, leaning forwards in my seat at moments and holding myself back from oohing and aahing. A worthy benchmark. One moment in particular, backed by Han Zimmer's score of what sounds like futuristic bagpipes, made me want to leap up and march with the characters on screen.
There are storytelling problems related to the film being structured to set up its next chapter, stopping halfway through the novel’s tale, which leads to some pacing issues and means the viewer might walk out the theatre with a lukewarm last impression. I found that with time for the viewing to sit, that last impression warms up to something more favourable than "lukewarm." If not toasty, comfortably heated, like the luxurious swimming pools of the expensive Hollywood mansions housing many of the film’s creators.
The photography (Greig Fraser) is simply nice. It is super competent and at times impressive, though it lacks creative flair or a strong authorial signature. It doesn't have much artistic identity outside the long shot, mostly leaning on typical-though-appropriate images lifted from the science fiction playbook.
The colour palette is made up of cold and subdued hues, mid tones, which sets an emotional tone of quiet elegance. It also contributes to a feeling the film lacks emotional charge or excitement. It lays foundations in granite.
Dialogue scenes are shot formulaically.
Composition stands out for creating a sense of abundant space and mind-warping scale. This gives the universe character, but adds further to the emotionally cold or empty feeling. Characters are dwarfed by their surroundings a lot. This is a creative decision, and it gives the impression of vast space befitting the remote and hostile landscape of Arrakis, the unfamiliar planet our protagonists find themselves guests (or more accurately, colonial occupiers) on.
The image also feels very clean and sterile, which goes further in a cold direction, though it fits the genre.
It would have been fun to see what Roger Deakins, who was originally attached as DP, would have done. Certainly, he would have lent the visuals a more refined artistic identity and photographic originality — he’s an all-timer, so I don’t think it's much of a slight on Fraser to say so —, but maybe more interesting would have been his general visual direction and how it would have contrasted with what we see. Alas, what we see is nothing to sneeze at. It puts the story in a spectacular frame, and achieves the Big Screen feeling.
Dense Star Field
The cast is extensive, so I’ll summarise.
Timothée Chalamet plays our protagonist, Paul Atreides. He’s preppy and precocious, ethical but frustrated, and Chalamet puts these qualities on the screen well. He is credible. Rebecca Ferguson plays Lady Jessica Atreides, his fierce and protective mother who is a member of the witch-like Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Her performance conjures a believable mother-son bond, and has memorable moments. Oscar Isaac is formidable as Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, though his role feels slightly dialled back and below its potential. Charlotte Rampling is flawless as matriarch of the Bene Gesserit, Reverend Mother Mohiam. Josh Brolin is well cast in a minor role as Paul’s martial arts trainer. Javier Bardem makes for a curious non-villain.
The cast is like a Hollywood producer’s Rolodex, with Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista fleshing things out, and opportunities to go deep are limited. What is there works, though it is obviously spread thin.
Spice World Revisited
The story is made with flavourful dramatic ingredients: a shadowy lineage of female warriors (or witches), an apprentice struggling to break through to the next level, noble and powerful houses at conflict under the rule of an evil emperor, and the trade of a super valuable substance referred to as "spice."
A psychoactive substance, spice is only found on the desert planet Arrakis, is essential for achieving interstellar travel, and is under the protection of gigantic (incredibly gigantic) sandworms.
On Arrakis live a native culture, the Fremen, who are masters of "desert power" and appear uninterested in enriching themselves through spice refinement. They are perfectly adapted to their environment through knowledge, cultural and spiritual, and specialised technology. They are also weary and savvy observers of the spice-related shenanigans of the empire and the various noble houses under its rule.
The story hits on refrains of fear being "the mind killer," the importance of being prepared to fight regardless of mood, and not allowing behaviour to be ruled by impulses. It is the latest incarnation of that old tale we know and love: "samurai warriors in space." There's also eco-conscious, feministic, and pacifistic threads running through the narrative.
The substance of the story is rich, much more so than Star Wars (to which Dune is akin but geared more towards an adult audience), and once it clicks it illuminates a universe that is genuinely fascinating. The biggest strength of the movie, and the thing that keeps it clear of the "good" waterline, is simply the strength of the source material. As you might expect, from the film adaptation of the most popular science fiction novel of all time. The filmmaking does what it needs to.
Safe & Slow
With a runtime of 2h 35m, and this being only the first part of the story, which means relatively few events are compressed into its plot, the sparse tone set by the photography bleeds into the narrative.
The pace at times lags as we are introduced to each part of the world, and beyond the midway point, if the story and spectacle of it haven't hooked you, you'll probably start to feel itchy feet. Even if they have, there will likely be moments where the film feels like a long distance run. A test of patience, daring you to "take your hand out the box." It is worth showing your mettle as a cinema viewer and staying with it. Persevere. Don't take your hand out that box.
'We were promised sandworms in their full glory, dammit!’ you might think, realising that we have yet to see our protagonist riding on the back of one like Kyle MacLachlan did in 1984. That moment never really comes, not really - though we get a glimpse of something that nods in its direction. Sandworms are in part held back on, before the story brings the curtains down episodically.
Which brings me to my biggest bugbear. As well put together as the film is, and as much as it takes a novel many thought un-filmable and puts it on the big screen in a consumable fashion, this is also very cautious and safe filmmaking. The script is always holding itself back and restraining itself, leaving something for later. That can be good or bad, depending on what you expect from your movies. Historically, it is a trait of television, not cinema.
In form everything is by the numbers, down the middle, take no risks. If in doubt, kick up some CG sand clouds, or use fast cuts and whisk the viewer by. Will something open itself up to ridicule for being excessive? Leave it out. Not sure if a plot point merits a full-blown fight sequence? Turn it into a quick summary shot and get the viewer back to the comfort of expository dialogue. Not sure how to design a character? Pull some visuals or take your cues from other productions (Apocalypse Now is a big one, and there’s a lot of Game of Thrones in there, too).
The movie leans on previous productions to make its way through using "proven" examples. At worst, Dune feels like not seeing an original creation but something assembled from off-the-shelf pieces like cinematic Lego bricks. ‘That’s blockbusters for you,’ sure, but there’s a balance to be struck and this is far off to one side.
At other moments, the creative cylinders fire up, a sense of originality returns, and it pulls you back in.
And I get it: the industry is insecure and risk-averse, especially after the hits it has taken due to a prolonged pandemic. That's why we're seeing the film more than a year after its scheduled release in the first place. Yet, this was basically a finished product before the pandemic was a thing. If the trend of "playing it safe" is so pronounced in a film almost completely finished before Covid, where do things go from here?
This overabundance of caution results in a movie that some audiences (especially those who don't get enthralled in the details of science fiction universes, whoever they are) will perceive as dull and overlong. Though I disagree with that assessment, there were one or two points where I found myself daydreaming of alternate scenes to the ones playing out in front of me, which is something I can't remember doing before in the theatre.
These "alternate scenes" were fanciful and ridiculous, and may just point towards issues of my own. Imagining our heroes "walking like Egyptians" instead of walking like Fremons as they traverse the sand dunes, with the soundtrack blaring The Bangles' 1986 hit single. Maybe I just have a few screws loose, or my subconscious wanted to put some Lynchian absurdity back in there.
Point being, movies shouldn't give the viewer room in their mind to daydream as scenes are playing on giant screens with surround sound in front of them. The moments that feel slow enough for this to happen are few, thankfully, and the pace does pick back up when it really needs to, administering jolts of adrenaline just in time.
The CG is an extension of the same. Risk-averse is the wrong term, but it is at times creatively lazy, inessential, and repeats enough to kill its intended effect. Things are done in the way you would expect an animation studio to pitch to their client as a way of meeting their requirements within the budget allocated.
Animation studios: please show us one or two things each movie that are truly magical, with a real human element. Something warm blooded, with heart and soul. Something organic.
In the case of Dune, the sandworms are an obvious “money shot.” Show us that four-hundred metre long body that you speak of, por favor. Not just dust clouds in their wake and giant mouths emerging from the surface (those are very cool in their own right, it must be said, but they leave something out… in that regard, Tremors (1990) has Dune (2021) beat).
All About Balance
These trends of caution show how little artists are being trusted to brand big budget movies with a unique creative identity — especially when they have franchise potential. Not the directors, cinematographers, or actors, at least. The score by Hans Zimmer is very original and one of the highlights of the movie, lending scenes that would have felt empty a bonus level of awesome. It shouldn't only be the composer that gets to have fun, though.
As worthy of cinema as Dune is, it shows — more than ever — the need to restore some independent spirit, that takes big risks with big budgets. A crazy voice inside me wonders what would have happened if Lynch was given a second shot and made this Dune, so many years later, with the benefit of hindsight along with his bold, “do or die” artistic vision intact. And another crazy voice inside me replies, saying that it would have been mind-blowingly brilliant, based on his recent output.
Directors who are given long leashes and are in their element taking creative risks are essential to make cinema something more than a medium for screening 2D carnival rides funded by billion dollar entities. When the material is really great, movies should always strive to be more than that. Dune does strive a bit in that direction, but only a bit. I hope Part Two, assuming its production goes ahead, surprises us and bucks the trend by going much further in that direction.
Villeneuve's Dune is a success. The monumental dimensions of the film, and the quality of its source story, manage to sweep its flaws up and wash them down the river of cinematic storytelling fun. It is a film to remember having seen in the theatre. Unlike Jodorowsky's attempt, Dune (2021) exists. And unlike Lynch's effort, it allows you to take it seriously enough to suspend disbelief and properly enjoy yourself (even if that involves daydreaming during slow moments).
It is such a sprawling story, in fact, that it begs to be seen more than once - especially for novices who have not read the novel and are not familiar with the story. I have seen it twice in the theatre, and I'm glad I did. The second viewing made the substance of the story and the qualities (positive and negative) of the film much clearer.
I am considering seeing it again while it’s showing, which serves as empirical proof that, despite my criticisms, Dune (2021) is a film with intrigue and staying power. It beckons you into an exciting and futuristic universe so big you need to see it again to really take it in. More than anything, perhaps, it fascinates me with Frank Herbert's story and the world of Dune, and spurs me to go seek out and read the novels.
Deeply flawed in some ways, yes, but it does not disappoint.
James Lanternman writes movie reviews, fiction, essays, and moonlit thoughts. Reach him at [email protected].