REVIEW: “Dune” (2021)

It’s hard not to be excited for a Denis Villeneuve movie. The French Canadian director, screenwriter, and producer has such a compelling filmography. I was introduced to Villeneuve via his 2010 Oscar nominated drama “Incendies”. But it’s his terrific run since then that has turned me into a bonafide fan. I enjoyed both “Prisoners” and “Enemy”. His 2015 border thriller “Sicario” may be my favorite film of his to date. “Arrival” was my #1 movie of 2016 while 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049” was a gutsy and heady sequel to a 1982 sci-fi classic.

It almost feels like a natural progression for Villeneuve’s next film to be his biggest and most audacious project to date. “Dune” is certainly that. This massive sprawling science-fiction epic is the first film in a two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 cult novel of the same name. Packing a hefty budget and a star-studded cast, “Dune” is a herculean undertaking brimming with ambition and made with the unquenchable passion of a filmmaker who has called this his “longstanding dream“.

There are a number of ways that a project of this size and scope could have gone awry. But Villenueve is a savvy filmmaker with a dedicated vision. I’ve seen “Dune” multiple times now, and I can honestly say that I’m struggling to find a single bad filmmaking decision anywhere in his movie. Bold statement, I know.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

I suppose you could pick on the exposition in the first half, the film’s overall deliberate pacing, or the ending which is more of a stop than an actually finish. But easy defenses could be made for each of those “issues”. The exposition is hardly intrusive and actually feels warranted. Villeneuve’s patience proves to be a real asset, giving the story and the characters the room they need to breathe. It also provides Villeneuve the space to show off the film’s biggest strength – the extraordinary world-building (more on that later). And the ending is simply a byproduct of the right decision to make this a two-parter.

Without question, it was the right choice to break this up into two movies. This film literally starts with the “Part One” tag and ends around the halfway mark of the “Dune” story. As mentioned above, this benefits the film greatly because it allows the right amount of time for us to be immersed into this striking and complex world. And it allows Villeneuve (who co-wrote the script with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) to acquaint us the many political, ecological, and societal intricacies that help give the story depth.

Set in the very distant future of 10191, “Dune” tells the story of young Paul (Timothée Chalamet), the gifted son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), the leader of the powerful House Atreides. They live and rule on the planet Caladan where Paul, next in line to lead, is trained in combat by close friend and House Atreides warrior Duncan (Jason Momoa) and Leto’s top aide Gurney (Josh Brolin). His mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), an acolyte of a mysterious sisterhood called the Bene Gesserit, teaches him the secrets of a mysterious inner power he possesses, a power that’s causing haunting dreams of a troubling future.

Meanwhile on the harsh desert planet of Arrakis, the brutal House Harkonnen, ran by the chillingly vile and grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), have become obscenely rich controlling the planet’s production of a priceless mineral called Spice. The Harkonnens callously harvest the coveted natural resource, avoiding massive sandworms and persecuting the resilient indigenous clan known as the Fremen. Their leader is Stilgar (a solemn and reticent Javier Bardem) and also among their ranks is Chani (Zendaya), a young woman who has been appearing in Paul’s dreams.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

After an imperial decree orders the Harkonnen off of Arrakis, the emperor grants stewardship of the planet to House Atreides. Suspicious of the mandate but loyal to the call, Leto accepts with hopes of forming an alliance with the native Fremen. That proves to be easier said than done. After 80 years of oppression, the Fremen are leery of any new offworlders. And can the Harkonnens be trusted to leave behind all the wealth and power found in the sands of Arrakis?

Ultimately the film very much belongs to Paul, a young man trying to find himself while being pulled in every direction. As Leto’s heir, everyone expects him to be next in line to lead House Atreides. Jessica’s sect (led by a wonderfully creepy Charlotte Rampling) hopes Paul is “the one” which they intend to use for their own cryptic purposes. And the Fremen, having heard of this messiah-like deliverer, wonder if Paul might be the fulfillment of that prophecy.

As Villeneuve patiently and methodically lays out his story, we’re struck by the surprising amount of narrative depth. Not only is “Dune” thematically rich, it’s filled with connected backstory. But to the screenwriting trio’s credit, they often (and smartly) allude to the lore rather than bury us in it. Yet there are still many layers to their story, and it’s impossible to narrow the film down to one single category. Of course it’s science fiction, but it’s also a coming-of-age story, a war movie, an anti-war movie, a sociopolitical parable. Another testament to the film’s richness.

But without question the movie’s biggest strength remains its world building. From the imaginative costumes to the jaw-dropping production design, Villeneuve and his talented team of creators have made a stunningly tactile world and every frame gives us something worthy to consume. Whether it’s the lush overcast Atreides homeworld with its vast waters and craggy coastlines or the stark yet gorgeous oceans of sand on Arrakis that look like golden brown meringue through DP Greig Fraser’s camera.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Interestingly, the technology of “Dune” leans more primitive than futuristic which helps the world feel rooted in our reality. There are no fancy LED panels and very little high-tech gadgetry. Even the structures convey this, often resembling old ruins rather than state-of-the-art facilities. The ships are massive and breathtaking spectacles yet designed with a cold austere simplicity. The machinery has a rusty industrial look and even the incredibly cool ornithopters (which resemble giant dragonflies) are a believable evolution of our standard helicopters.

To the performances, I admit to being a bit of a Chalamet skeptic. I’ve never thought he was a “bad” actor, just not up to the gushing hype that follows everything he does. Here he earns the praise he’s been getting. Chalamet brings a boyish petulance to Paul in the film’s early scenes, but over time convincingly turns his vulnerability to maturity. Isaac is fittingly stoic. Momoa is full of charisma. Brolin is stern and abrasive. Ferguson deftly manages the emotionally meatiest role. Skarsgård is devilishly menacing. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is mysterious yet exciting. Zendaya does fine with the few scenes she’s given.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from “Dune”. I’ve never read Herbert’s book and I don’t remember a thing about David Lynch’s 1984 film. Perhaps that’s why “Dune” 2021 blew me away. From its opening shot to the final fade, I found myself enraptured and transported. Villeneuve’s captivating direction, Hans Zimmer’s brooding exotic score (one of his very best), the exquisite sound design, the visual feast that screams to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Together it all makes for a smart, evocative, and rousing experience that reminded me at every turn of why I love cinema. And this is just Part One of the story.


42 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Dune” (2021)

  1. Honestly, this very well could be my movie of the year. It’s brilliantly realized and it’s easy to follow, despite the fact that it throws a lot of information and lore at you. I have to give real credit to Villeneuve and the writers for making it accessible. I love the 1984 movie, despite its problems, but this blows that version out of the proverbial water. My biggest gripe with Dune is not with the film itself, but rather the way the movie was handled by Warner Bros. This is a big-screen movie in every aspect, so putting on HBO Max on the same day as it hits theaters was incredibly stupid. Looking at the world-wide box office results, my gut feeling is that Part 2 will be greenlit pretty soon, but for a while it looked like that was entirely up in the air. While I absolutely believe that Part 2 will happen, anything else Dune-related won’t. At least, not under the current leadership. Hopefully, when Discovery takes the reigns, they’ll understand Dune’s real potential. As it stands, Denis Villeneuve’s film is absolutely incredible. The sense of scale is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. And this is done WITHOUT 3D. 5 stars? Abso-frickin’-lutely.

  2. Wow, Keith, what a wonderful review of the movie. I still haven’t seen it but I read the book and see the movie follows the plot well. I’m glad he bent towards lo-tech rather than hi-tech, as he did in Blade Runner 2049.

  3. I have just come back from the theatre after watching this film. It is every bit magnificent and your review echoes my thoughts perfectly. A Timothée Chalamet film from the first to the last frame I was reminded of Matrix, ‘He’s the One’ dialogue stirring the pot. Fingers crossed that Part 2 happens quickly.

    • I must have a part 2. If for some insane reason it doesn’t get the green light it’ll be one of the biggest travesties in movie history. But I’m really confident that part 2 will be announced.

      • Oh, there’s no doubt that we’ll be getting a part 2. Whether it gets greenlit by Warner Bros. in the next couple of weeks or when Discovery takes over in March, a part 2 is most certainly going to happen. With a movie of THIS scale, you really don’t want to NOT finish the story. The problem is that we won’t see part 2 for at least 2 years, if they start production soon.

      • I know it! Talk about a painfully long wait! I have heard rumors (and I emphasize “rumors”) that HBO Max was interested in a series from the Dune universe. Who knows, but I would be all for it.

  4. It was a stunning movie; even though it wasn’t a 100% faithful representation of Herbert’s book, it was a fan’s dream come true. Being that the book itself was such a complex and grand story, I believe Dir. Denis Villeneuve really encapsulated the book in this first part movie as best as it can be translated into film.

    I was left speechless about ’10 minutes into the film as I didn’t realize how quickly I had become sucked into the entire atmosphere that Villeneuve managed to create in the movie. Fantastic, and I’d also give it a 5/5 (originally 4.5/5) as I realize it really does match up fantastically with the book.

    Safe to say, though, I also agree that Villeneuve’s work usually speaks for itself. So I’ll be incredibly excited for the second part to release as well!

  5. I am also a bit of a Chalamet skeptic, his range here needs to be a bit broader, but that is mostly the writing. Momoa practically steals all the energy of the movie. I am afraid I compared every moment to the 84 Lynch version, sometimes it excels and in other places it fall short. I think the two part decision is the right one as long as they actually do part 2. A great looking film, I’m still not sure it has solved all the puzzles that plagued everyone who has attempted this, but I am very happy it exists.

  6. I’m really looking forward to reading this review in full when I see this soon. I have to keep as much of it a secret as I can! But . . . . wow it’s been hard.

  7. I saw this yesterday afternoon where I realized why I spent more money on the typical afternoon ticket because I went to a Dolby Atmos screening of the film and… it was worth it. I’m finishing up my own review of the film right now as… FUCKING GIVE ME PART 2!!!!!!

  8. Great review. I definitely agree with you about this movie. It was truly a fantastic and cinematic experience and I felt that Villeneuve was perfect for the feature and did the source material justice.

  9. This is on my must see list and will hopefully catch it. I hardly recall the novel . I just couldn’t get into Herbert’s narrative and the story didn’t grip me but I know many who love it and that’s all cool. So I’m looking at this movie from a different perspective , in a way much like you . The main attraction for me was Denis Villeneuve , I’ve truly loved his work , especially in the science fiction field . Both Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival were fantastic , so I was confident he would handle Dune well. Once again an excellent ,thoughtful and comprehensive review .

    • Thanks my friend. Absolutely see this, on the big screen of at all possible. I know “see it on the big screen” is often thrown out there without much thought. But this truly is a testament to the theater experience. Anxious to hear what you think of it.

  10. Part Two (its not really a sequel I don’t think) is approved.

    “I just received news from Legendary that we are officially moving forward with Dune: Part Two,” the filmmaker said. “It was a dream of mine to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune, and I have the fans, the cast, and crew, Legendary and Warner Bros. to thank for supporting this dream. This is only the beginning.”

  11. Pingback: Top 10 Films of 2021 | Keith & the Movies

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