Movie Review - Dune (2021)
The Last Remake of Beau Geste.
That was the first thing that popped into my head as I left the theater for Dune.
It’s not that I’ve ever seen the former, but it turns out that it was the key for unlocking my opinion on Denis Villeneuve’s latest visual masterpiece. As usual, let me explain…
I’ve been a huge fan of Dune in its many iterations, the 84 Lynch film (theatrical and TV cuts), the two Sci-Fi miniseries and of course the novels by Frank Herbert (the works of his son, Brian, and Kevin J Anderson? Not so much). And yeah, I’m one of the folks that thought Jodorowsky’s fever dream of an adaptation would’ve been a heck of a sight to behold. So to have so many adaptations of the same material running through your head while you’re watching the latest adaptation, well, to adhere to the lore, it makes for some pretty noisy Other Memory moments! The thing that brought it all into focus for me was a seemingly forgotten comedy from the late 70s that I’d never seen. After all, there are only so many ways that one can do the Gom Jabbar scene or the rescue of the spice harvester crew, so on and so forth. With that in mind, I was only then able to separate this from the ‘Trying to be Star Wars’ interpretation of the 80s, the ‘Dinner Theatre’ version of the 90s and the ‘Cinematic LSD’ version that never was of the 70s.
Enough of the lead-in though…how was the movie?
I’m pleased to say that most of what you’ve read on the internet is true…it truly is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Although as a reader of this review, something like the lead-in is gonna happen again, because just like the spice Melange that is at the heart of the story, turns out Dune had additional profound revelations in store for me. Now, let’s try to generate a synopsis, which, with a story like Dune, isn’t going to be easy:
In the far-flung future, mankind has spread across the stars thanks to a substance called Melange. In a feudalistic society, any royal house that can control the spice has a chance to rule the universe itself. As the Emperor assigns House Atreides to replace their long-time enemies, House Harkonnen, in stewardship of the only planet that can produce the spice, the stage is set for an ancient rivalry to come to a head. In the middle of this massive conflict will arise a boy, Paul Atreides, who has the potential to set humanity on a golden path…or to burn it all asunder with terrible purpose.
For the uninitiated, that’s just the barest bones of what’s going on. We’ll dig a bit deeper as we go, but to the movie’s credit…and the marketing department’s shame…anyone going into this needs to know that this is PART ONE. We only get about halfway through the first book with this film…which, I’ll be honest, struck me as a bit odd. The original novel is actually divided into three ‘books’: Book I – Dune, Book II – Muad’Dib and Book III – The Prophet, and the first Sci-Fi miniseries very smartly broke up their episodes this way as well, each of the three nights being dedicated to each of the phases of the book. Fans like myself may or may not have trouble with this new dividing point…however, I found the answer in my second viewing of the film. It might be best to think of part 1 here as “The Fall of House Atreides” or, if we want to get slightly grim with it, “The Death of Paul Atreides”…because what we see here is the full character arc of Paul, how he starts off as a child of privilege who wonders if he even wants the responsibilities that he knows will eventually fall to him, then everything is stripped away from him due to the fall of his House and the film concludes with him beginning a new journey in a new tribe, ready to complete his transformation into someone new.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: this film is breathtakingly beautiful. Like, seriously…nothing is going to prepare you. And I know, EVERY review goes on about this…and rightfully so. And yes, I know, every review also tells you to go see this in the theater or, if possible, see it in IMAX. Yes and YES. I get it, pandemic and all, but seriously, I don’t regret for a second that I saw this in a theater in IMAX. Now, granted, I double-masked it (disposable mask underneath my cloth one) and was totally fine throughout the film’s runtime. So, yeah, do it. Do it while you still can (because I think the IMAX dates are limited). Dune perfectly displays that Denis Villeneuve is likely the most gifted visionary filmmaker of my lifetime. If the old phrase ‘every frame a painting’ is to be believed, then Villeneuve has upped it to ‘every frame a masterpiece’. While it was very much on display in Blade Runner 2049, Dune eclipses even that by leaps and bounds. There’s a clarity to the visuals here that for some reason evoke another science-fiction masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. I don’t think there has been such a perfect marriage of content and visuals since that 1968 film…until Dune. The only way I can truly underscore this is to simply state that there were random times during the film where I found myself inadvertently crying. And no, it wasn’t because I was an emotional mess (for once!). The film presents such vistas that the viewer is truly beholding something new being born and given how visually samey many Hollywood productions have gotten lately, that in and of itself is awe-inspiring.
From visuals to page, I have to give the screenwriters (Villeneuve, Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts) credit for boiling down this epic tome into the bare essentials. Yes, there are name drops enough to satisfy the hardcore fan but the larger concepts, such as CHOAM, are left out…and probably rightly so in order to gain mass appeal. Singular call out to Spaihts as his involvement in this film continues to have me wondering how much better Prometheus would’ve turned out had Ridley Scott left the guy’s work alone instead of bringing that hack Lindelof…but that’s another rant for another time. This trio had a thankless task of taking something that was unavoidably exposition heavy and still managed to produce a film where there are some very solid character moments for a fair amount of the cast, heroes, villains and even supporting cast. Those of you that have read the book and seen the other adaptations know that this is no easy feat. That’s not to say that their effort is perfect…but where you find flaws is going to depend on you. For me, I loved the way Herbert chose his words carefully, with some passages even bordering on poetic at times. Thusly, the way the Lynch version included as much of that as it could and trying to mimic that style in moments where it had to veer from the book is probably my favorite. The Sci-Fi miniseries tried to make the dialog more conversational, which of course made the proceedings more easily understood but managed to erode the epic nature of the piece. This film manages to find a middle ground where the dialog can be stilted at times, evoking the Herbert original without directly quoting it, more casual in others, allowing those not steeped in the universe already an opportunity to grasp what’s happening in front of them all the while maintaining some of the style fans have fallen in love with.
If you came into the film knowing NOTHING about the source material, well, I’m not sure whether or not you’ll be able to follow but I can tell you one thing, the hype behind this cast is real and their work is amazing. Oscar Isaac’s performance as Duke Leto puts every interpretation prior to shame and for me was the standout, creating a character that it is very easy to see why not only his own House but also the other Houses of the Landsdraad would rally around and fight for. Yes, he’s flawed but there’s just this amazing undercurrent of not only how good a man he is but a good father that you hate to see how his fate plays out for him. I’m not too familiar with Rebecca Furguson as I’ve not seen any of the Mission Impossible films since the first one, but she’s fairly solid as the Lady Jessica. There are a couple of emotional moments where I think she overdid it just a touch (standing outside her chamber door as Paul endures the Gom Jabbar, for example)…but I can understand her decisions in these moments. Jessica as a character was always more open to emotion than her Bene Gesserit sisters so it makes sense that we see these on display, I just think that these moments could have benefited from a little more subtlety. Timothee Chalamet is one of those actors I’ve been hesitant to watch or comment on, mainly because a lot of his performances have been in movies that don’t particularly fall in my wheelhouse. He almost struck me as the next Robert Pattinson…and that is NOT a compliment! Well, I’m happy to eat those words and am ready to fly this kid’s flag given his performance as Paul. While he’s in his 20s, he VERY MUCH gives off the vibe of being in his teens…which is something previous versions have had trouble with. Remember, in the book, Paul is all of 16…and Chalamet is very believable as this age. As someone who’s very world is shattering around him, it’d be very easy to fall into a more whiney performance but Chalamet expertly avoids this, giving us a character we can not only sympathize with, but also rally behind, much like his father. Jason Mamoa…I totally want to say he plays Duncan Idaho as someone other than Jason Mamoa, but at the same time, I love the heck out of some Jason Mamoa being himself, so yeah, it’s Jason Mamoa as Duncan Idaho…and for the swashbuckling swordsmaster, for me it works. Granted, I was sold ever since that scene in the trailer where he goes in for the hug with Paul saying “My boy!”, so I might be biased. Still, if we’re looking to adapt the Dune series of novels, I have to admit I’d be VERY intrigued to see how he handles playing the ghola mentat Hayt from the second book, Dune Messiah…and how that would have the potential to not only give us something new but silence his naysayers. And I’d definitely love it if they signed him to a long term contract for the character, as any Dune fan knows the importance of Duncan throughout the saga. Javier Bardem and Zendaya, as Stillgar and Chani respectively, do not have a lot in the way of screentime, which makes sense as they’ll have prominent roles in Part 2 where these characters take much more prominence in Paul’s life, but they certainly portray credible Fremen in their limited appearances. I have confidence that they’ll do just fine come the sequel. Lastly, there’s Josh Brolin, who is simply an understated genius. Every time he’s on the screen, his Gurney Halleck demands your attention, whether as a fierce warrior, a caretaker or the butt of a joke, you simply can’t take your eye off of him and I simply can’t wait to see more of him in the next film. Shit, I said lastly like I was done…when I’ve completely forgotten to shout the praises of the Harkonnen actors…each of them perfectly cast. Stellan Skarsgaard is perfect as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The way he incorporates Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now into the floating fat man is utterly genius…so obvious and yet, well, no one’s done it til now, so perhaps not! Dave Bautista simply is the Beast Rabban and I’m not ashamed to admit that he’s becoming one of those actors that I’ll watch practically anything they’re in. Lastly, for real this time, there’s David Desmaltchian as the twisted mentat Piter de Vries who channels just a bit of the Brad Dourif crazy from the Lynch version all the while keeping it subdued enough where you can just barely see it bubbling under the surface. With roles in both the MCU and DCEU, and now Dune, this guy’s on his way to being a great character actor (or "That Guy") for this generation…and that’s high praise indeed.
Now for another revelation. In other reviews, you’re likely going to read that Hans Zimmer’s score is one of his best. I can’t agree with that statement. You see, for me, a movie score, while always joined at the hip with its visual counterpart, must also feel like a complete piece on its own. Sure, the melodies and themes will always conjure the images from the film, but the score is also a composition all its own: a build-up, climax and coda that can be independent and enjoyed as its own piece. Zimmer’s scores never feel that way to me…even the scores of his that I’ve liked, such as Man of Steel. They’re disjointed music for scenes, not a singular symphony. Now, there’s a separate term for that, most prolific in the 90s where it seemed like every movie had two CD’s release in its wake; the first being the movie score, composed by John Williams, Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith and the like, the second being music from or inspired by the movie, which would be the haven for popular or current music that is either featured in the film or music commissioned to tie in with the film in one way or another (mention of characters, thematic tie ins, just showcasing ‘the new hotness’, etc.). These latter discs were often called ‘Soundtracks’. And this is where Dune hit me. I’ll agree with the majority of reviewers that Zimmer’s work does provide great background music for what is happening on the screen. But as a score? Honestly, it just doesn’t hold up…because it sounds like what it is, music compiled for a bunch of scenes, not a singular piece that holds together on its own without the help of its cinematic brother. So, as a ‘Soundtrack’, yes, Zimmer’s work here is superlative. But to call it a score would defile and belittle those that have perfected this art, whether it’s the masters like Williams and Goldsmith or more modern composers such as Michael Giacchino, Brian Tyler, Tyler Bates or David Arnold.
After a long separation from the movie-going experience, Dune is the perfect film to return to and remember why we all congregate in the multiplex: larger than life visuals with larger than life sound breathing life into larger than life characters. I’d highly recommend doing what I did, make sure your first viewing is on the biggest screen you can find with repeat viewings at home, either via HBO Max or when this is eventually released on home video. And I would certainly recommend repeat viewings. It helped me come to a better appreciation of the film and remember, I’m the targeted demographic! With the prior versions of Dune I always had to include a qualifier with my recommendation: “Yeah, it’s good but it does stray from the book in some Star Wars ways”, “it’s comprehensive but some of the dialogue kinda sucks and it feels more like a stage production than an actual adaptation”, “sure, it would have deviated a lot from the book but man…it would’ve been insane!” Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of Dune has no qualifiers: it’s damn good and will hopefully give the Dune series the spotlight it deserves and hopefully the same treatment that the Lord of the Rings books got. (That being said, maybe stopping after Children of Dune might be best, since nobody wants a repeat of the Hobbit, do they?)
TLDR: Cinematic perfection worthy of our highest rating, the Hypno Cat!