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.
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.
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.
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.