(2021) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Babs Olusanmokun, Benjamin Clementine, Souad Faress, Golda Rosheuvel. Directed by Denis Villaneuve
Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi epic novel Dune has very much informed the landscape of science fiction; its themes crop up in the Star Wars saga as well as in literally dozens of movies thereafter, including Tremors and even Game of Thrones. The novel was largely considered unfilmable, although visionary Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowski attempted it until the production fell apart of its own weight, and David Lynch finally succeeded in getting a version filmed in 1984 which he has since disowned; the studio cut it to shreds, making the film nearly incomprehensible, even to people familiar with the book. A 2001 SyFy miniseries fared somewhat better, but many feel it still didn’t capture the essence of the novel.
Acclaimed director Denis Villaneuve is the latest to attempt a shot at Dune. He takes the familiar story, but in a perhaps wise move, elected to divide the novel into two parts. Part two wasn’t greenlit at the time of the movie’s release, although it has since, so there was no guarantee that the sequel would ever be filmed, which was taking a huge risk, but it eventually paid off.
Young Paul Atreides (Chalamet), son of Duke Leto (Isaac) and the duke’s concubine Lady Jessica (Ferguson) has been having dreams of a blue-eyed warrior woman on a desert planet. Paul is aware his father, head of the House Atreides, has been ordered by the Emperor to take over spice production on Arrakis, a world known more colloquially as Dune. It is a lucrative offer; the main rival of House Atreides, House Harkonen, has held onto Arrakis for more than 80 years and has amassed an immense fortune. Spice, you see, is the drug that prolongs life and allows space navigators to fold space, which makes interstellar travel and commerce possible. The drug is found only on Arrakis.
But Duke Leto smells a trap and he’s right. Baron Vladimir Harkonen (Skarsgård), a devious corpulent man with an anti-gravity belt, means to put paid to his enemies the Atreides with the aid of the Emperor’s own troops. Arrakis is therefore a trap, and Harkonen has an ace up his sleeve.
That’s just a VERY rough outline of the plot, which is much more intricate and confounding than I make it out to be. Most of the really interesting performances are coming from characters with more or less minor roles with the exception of Rebecca Ferguson, who is absolutely superb as the regal Lady Jessica, who schemes to deliver to the Bene Gesserit order of space witches the Galactic savior the order has long prophesized about, but that also exists as a legendary deliverer on Arrakis.
Describing the movie would really take up more time and space than you’d probably be willing to peruse; suffice to say that the scale of this movie rivals essentially anything you’ve ever seen in a cinema before. The sets are massive and absolutely gorgeous and each planet, like the stormy ocean world of Caladan where House Atreides is based to Geidi Prime, the iron caverns where House Harkonen schemes and Arrakis itself, have distinct personalities in architecture yet each retains its own individual grandeur. It is an absolutely gorgeous film to look at, made even more impressive by a large-format movie screen (or even a regular movie screen). The sandworms are spectacular, so let’s get that straight; so too are the spacecraft which Villaneuve uses comparative scaling; in space they are tiny but on the planet surface they are enormous, the size of a small city. The scale of this movie is unbelievable.
The trouble with epic movies is that often something has to get lost, and here there are so many wonderful characters and actors, many of which are onscreen for only a scene or two, that they get lost in the shuffle. Jason Momoa, as sword master Duncan Idaho, brings a larger-than-life presence to the part which barely was featured at all in the 1984 version. Charlotte Rampling has little screen time as the imperious Reverend Mother Helen Mohiam but is impressive in it for the brief time she’s around. There are a number of other actors who have moments that resonate but are quickly dispatched or fall out of the story.
The story revolves around Paul Atreides and indie film darling Chalamet does a fairly decent job in the role, although I found him a bit too doe-eyed and pretty for the part of a young man who was also supposed to be an outstanding warrior; his fight scenes are particularly unconvincing. It is one of the movie’s biggest drawbacks (but not it’s biggest one; see below).
Truth be told, I always had a soft spot for the 1984 version, even though I recognize that it was flawed. It wasn’t the movie that Lynch wanted to make, which was a blessing and a curse; the movie he wanted to make may well have ended up bloated beyond all recognition. Fans have been clamoring for a director’s edition of that Dune for decades but it will never happen; Lynch isn’t interested in revisiting it, and even if he was, I doubt that Universal would even allow it, given that Warner Brothers holds the rights to the property now. The legal ramifications would make even Frank Herbert’s head spin.
In any case, if spectacle is what you’re after, this movie has it in spaces. It is slow-moving in places and the plot can be pretty convoluted which is really going to put some people off, but it is a lot more easily understood than it’s 1984 predecessor. Is this going to be the definitive version of Dune? Probably. At least I’m looking forward to Part 2 when it is released in October 2023. After that there is a whole series of novels based on the Dune universe written both by Herbert and his son, after the author passed away. Potentially, this can be a franchise filling the coffers of Warner Brothers for decades to come. Let us hope so.
REASONS TO SEE: One of the most epic movies (in scope) of the past decade. Terrific work by Momoa and Ferguson.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving during the first half and occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it graphic), disturbing images and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first trailer for the film used composer Hans Zimmer’s orchestral version of the Pink Floyd song “Eclipse.” This was a nod to the aborted Jodorowski version in which the Mexican director had planned to have Pink Floyd score his movie.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through November 21)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Silent Hours