Dune was without a doubt my most anticipated movie ever. After years of waiting, I had the chance to finally see the movie (twice!) and I can confidently say that Dune is another brilliant film in Villeneuve‘s career. Is it the best? I think not. But it’s certainly the most personal in terms of form as well as themes. It is the kind of film that will go down as one of the most unique blockbusters of this century, one that has brought a lot of fresh air into the landscape of mainstream cinema.
Dune is a coming-of-age story of a young man named Paul Atreides who is frightened of leaving Caladan – his home planet full of water and a variety of life. House Atreides is supposed to go Arrakis, also known as Dune, which is a desert planet with a rough ecosystem. However, Dune is full of spice called melange, a psychoactive chemical that is the main natural resource in the entire Empire. Melange enables interstellar travels and without it, the economy of the empire would collapse. As soon as Paul enters the Arrakis’ environment imbued with spice, his powers awaken.
Denis Villeneuve has created a work that is enthralling in its immersion and scale. The editing makes the film feel like a dream, which resonates with Paul’s storyline and the film’s narrative. From the very beginning, we step into the shoes of Paul Atreides who is faced with strange dreams, and from a certain point, he loses his footing and stops fighting both his nature and the environment of Arrakis.
Dune delivers a solid story about adapting our bodies and subconsciousness to a new environment, showing the power of nature over our petty human issues. Paul, being the (false) messiah, is faced with the sandworm Shai-Hulud, a sacred and religious manifestation of the power of nature. From the beginning of the movie, it’s clear that Paul’s journey isn’t a pleasant one but a sad one and at the very end of the film, I felt the emptiness and imprisonment that Paul suffered.
Dune’s source material is very dense and comprehensive, as it deconstructs the journey of a white hero while providing readers with a treatise on many sociopolitical issues. The filmmakers had a tough task to fit all of this neatly into the film’s narrative without losing focus on the main plot. I had a lot of concerns about this but as a fan of the book, I am really satisfied with how skillfully they were able to adapt 2/3 of the book’s material.
While Villeneuve’s vision has an emphasis on the sacred and metaphysical parts of Dune, he doesn’t lose sight of the sociopolitical issues. From the very opening scene, the movie criticizes colonialism and the exploitation of the planet’s natural resources by the Empire’s great houses. It is a theme that is consistently built upon by Villeneuve, including Fremen’s tribalist lifestyle and their relationship with the otherworldly people. Moreover, Paul’s journey fits symbolically into the ecological thesis of the Dune universe and provides a good foundation for the sequel.
As the movie adapts 2/3 of the book, some conscious flaws in the production are hard to judge after one movie. I have to state that my biggest disappointment and simultaneously the movie’s biggest flaw is the pacing. After the director’s work and the characterization of Dune itself, I had expected the picture to be calmly paced, in a style similar to Blade Runner 2049.
But the movie is spectacle after spectacle with little room to breathe in between. The beginning of the second act, where the heroes find themselves on Arrakis, suffers the most as it never takes time to deepen the relationships of the characters. At this point, I felt that the movie was just ticking off some of the scenes from the book that only bring us closer to the midpoint of the story, robbing any weight from the build to the story’s pivotal moment.
Denis Villeneuve is a genuinely talented filmmaker and presents the story gracefully but either the film should have paced better or should have been 10 minutes longer. Many relationships would have benefited from it. One of those characters that suffered from the pace is Doctor Yueh. I don’t want to reveal too much, but his character and his tragedy were completely swept under the rug.
Villeneuve makes the most out of his canvas, using sound and design to tell stories, and building the atmosphere with Greig Fraser‘s cinematography. The entire film evokes a sense of historic real-world scale because of many vast panoramic shots, which takes us back to the first films of the Canadian filmmaker from Quebec. Arrakis, the culture, ecology, and religion of this planet are treated with non-fictional aesthetics. On the other hand, the more intimate, personal character moments are shot in a slightly more static tone. Many wide frames show us the scale and size of this universe and it never feels empty. It feels alive, breathing, and lived-in. Villeneuve and Fraser brilliantly draw the contrast between the humid and wet Kaladan and the sultry and hot Arrakis. Every frame is treated with reverence and care.
As for the music, Hans Zimmer has probably delivered the best soundtrack of his career. The soundtrack is extremely diverse and feels a lot of electronics, oriental music, or strong vocals. The soundtrack in itself is a distinct character in the story.
However, the most important element, which was supposed to highlight the internal state of the characters, is of course the acting. Overall, I would rate it as really good and I wouldn’t be able to point out a bad performance. I would say that some of the performances are simply unsatisfying due to lack of screen time or script problems, like Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck or Chen Chang as Doctor Wellington Yueh, among others.
The rest of the cast brings stellar performances The absolute MVP of the film is Rebbeca Ferguson as Lady Jessica. She is outstanding and brilliant in this role, providing a wealth of emotion and character simply with the most nuanced of expressions. She is genius in the fluidity of her mannerisms and switching between being a mother, Bene Gesserit, a concubine of a duke, or a warrior. Her interpretation of Lady Jessica perfectly corresponds with my idea of this character who from the beginning of the film plays chess with everyone.
Timothée Chamalet as Paul Atreides is also great, and I could say he was born for this role. As in the case of Jessica, his performance matched my idea of the character. Timothée smuggles in a lot of nuances and also smoothly transitions from this scared boy to a person who has to face the fatalism of his existence.
Dune is an event-like film and an experience that has stuck with me. I feel as if I have entered someone’s dream and seen images that have been in the mind of the creator for decades. It’s not a film without flaws, and I think it may turn a lot of viewers from it. In my opinion, it’s a film that breaks out of the blockbuster mold and tells a story through a visual and aural experience. This is a film that must be seen in a cinema, preferably in IMAX. This is the kind of movie that breathes and lives its own life, introducing us to this alien world with grace and a touch of style.