Synopsis: Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people
Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Running Length: 155 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: Am I a perfect audience member for the newest attempt to adapt Dune, Frank Herbert’s celebrated 1965 novel? Long thought to be too complex to be translated onto the screen, it was famously attempted by the artist and director Alejandro Jodorowsky who began his work in 1974 before abandoning the project two years into pre-production. Years later David Lynch more infamously tried his hand at the piece, releasing his completed film in 1984 to disastrous reviews and failing to make back it’s budget at the box office. While it has gone on to achieve a cult-like status, no one would say it’s any kind of definitive version of the film. More notable where the two miniseries that aired on the Sci Fi channel, essentially giving that fledgling cable company street cred from the industry and fans at the same time.
Me? I’ve never seen any adaptation or read the book(s) and while I normally try to do my homework before a remake, reboot, or other comes out, for the version of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve arriving in theaters now I decided to chuck it all and do absolutely nothing. So that’s why I might be the best all-around viewer because I’m coming at it with no pre-conceived notions about the source material or previous adaptations to compare it to or feel like it has to live-up to anything. The only thing it had to contend with were the monstrous expectations the studio had put by delaying it nearly a year from its original release date, insisting it was an experience best reserved for theaters on the biggest screen possible.
Like the recent release of No Time to Die, I’m willing to admit that while some of the releases that came out during the pandemic lockdown shuttered theaters worked just fine when viewed at home, Dune is a film that deserves to be witnessed on a screen so big it should feel overwhelming…like the movie itself. This is a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-blue-moon sort of event movie that can’t be replicated completely when seen at home. Though it was made available on HBOMax the same day it opened in theaters, you can’t compare the two viewings because the movie is the movie and it’s great, but the awe-inspiring visuals are knockouts when projected in their sheer enormity.
Unrestrained praise for the theatrical exhibition aside, Dune is more than anything an example of filmmaking (and a filmmaker) firing on all cylinders where each piece of the cinematic puzzle working together to make something incredible. Yet to (in my mind) make a film that isn’t worth watching multiple times, Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) has a clear vision of what this movie is and should be (and, as you’ll know right of the bat…will be in the future) so there is rarely a moment along the way where Dune isn’t absolutely on course in its narrative storyline. From what I understand, that’s where the previous adaptations have run into trouble. Herbert’s novels have deeper meanings and storylines with interwoven characters, times, and subplots and to juggle those all is an immense challenge. The director, along with co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts (Passengers) and Eric Roth (2018’s A Star is Born) have focused the action and events to be cohesive and trackable – you could likely watch this on mute and still get the idea of what’s happening.
So…what IS happening in Dune, you may ask? Let me attempt a small breakdown of it all.
Way way WAY in the future, Spice is a valuable resource to anyone that can harvest it and harness it’s power. With the universe under the command of an unseen Emperor and overseen by various “houses” within the Galactic Empire, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, The Addams Family 2) has been ordered by the Emperor to the planet Arrakis which is the only current source of Spice. Accompanied by his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman), mother to his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet, Lady Bird) they travel to the planet to find the previous House (led by Stellan Skarsgård, Cinderella, and overseen by My Spy’s Dave Bautista) left the harvesting equipment in disrepair. Recognizing they were set-up to fail and eventually betrayed by those they trusted, the House of Atreides will need to find favor with the people of Arrakis (and avoid the terrifying sandworms trolling around the Spice fields) if they are to survive a plot that was cruelly set into motion from the top levels of the Empire.
Sounds a lot like another space epic that just ended a few years back, doesn’t it? It’s not quite the same, but there are ripples of those Shakespearean twists that Star Wars employed so well throughout the film. Dune very much succeeds on its own merits, however and that’s not just thanks to Villeneuve’s specific direction and eye for visual acuity. The performances are top notch, and this has to be Chalamet’s best showing since his Oscar-nominated turn in Call Me by Your Name…I’d even say there are times when its better. Acting can get lost in these spectacles but Chalamet doesn’t let that important aspect slip. Neither do Ferguson, Isaac, or terrific supporting players Josh Brolin (Oldboy) and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) playing allies to Atriedes that fend off attacks from all sides. Billed high but seen little is Zendaya (Malcolm & Marie), though she’ll be kept busy enough…later.
Ah…the later aspect of Dune. It’s now well known this film is but the first chapter of a longer series but how many more and how long will we need to wait until the next one arrives? Even knowing this is the initial entry point into this world shouldn’t dissuade you from getting out to this one because it’s as standalone a film as can be, with its own thrills and humungous set-pieces that make for breathless action sequences. At times I wished for subtitles because the sound design is often as complex as the story…but that’s what a home rewatch is for. And I’ll be getting to that as soon as I’m through with this review. Spice up your life and climb this mountain as soon as possible.