Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is spectacular in every sense of the word. Here is a big, big budgeted, grandly ambitious and thoroughly gorgeous film where there is hardly a frame that isn’t breathtaking. Personally, I haven’t read Frank Herbert’s Dune, but I’m more than aware of the fanbase that the novel has, and for those who have been waiting for someone to get Dune “right,” Villeneuve, I assume, was the man for the job. Having seen the film for myself, I too can probably vouch for it. It’s marvelous.
In terms of getting it “right,” the last time a major filmmaker dared take on the source material was David Lynch’s 1984 film Dune. I enjoy Lynch’s Dune more than Lynch does, but the movie was a hot mess. It seems more like a blueprint for Villeneuve’s Dune, in that the pieces were there but it wasn’t exactly coherent. Villeneuve’s Dune can feel incoherent too, if you don’t know your Atreides from your Harkonnen, and if your knowledge of spice is from your kitchen. Dune throws a lot at you, particularly in its first 40 minutes, in terms of detail and plot and lore and such. Eventually the story does find its groove though, and it adds to the already pretty marvelous spectacle.
As Dune opens, the title card reads, “Dune: Part I,” and this is really something that should be known going into it. It should be known that Dune: Part I is only the first part of the story, and if you’re expecting an open and closed story, you’re not going to get it here. Unlike Lynch, who of course took his own weird stab at the material but also had to fend off against studio interference, Villeneuve appears to hold the keys to the kingdom here. Where Lynch told the entire story in one sitting, messily, Villeneuve intends to release multiple films from Dune, depending on what the box office turnout looks like. He’s been given the freedom and the budget to tell this story the way it was intended to be told. Clearly, judging from this film, he is the man to be trusted, from the way that he juggles all of this detail to the look and atmosphere.
In terms of the plot, of course I’m no Dune expert, so pardon me if I sound stupid. The film is set in a futuristic land that looks like a cross between Mad Max and Star Wars, and in this world there is a much sought after form of currency known as Spice, which looks fairly similar to cayenne pepper. Pretty much reigning supreme in this world is the Atreides clan, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). The Atreides are seen as enemies in the eyes of the Harkonnens, a bald and pale race, led by one Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), a great big fat person. They are also seen as enemies in the eyes of the Fremen, a race of desert dwellers with baby blue eyes, led by Emperor Stilgar (Javier Bardem).
The majority of the plot in Dune focuses on Leto’s son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet), who as the film starts is having dreams about an unknown Fremen named Chani (Zendaya). Paul is still a teenager and is in need of training, but as it turns out his dreams are more like premonitions. Soon, his father and mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) begin to notice that Paul is acting strange, and when forces start to attack the Atreides, more and more of these premonitions come to the surface and Paul begins to wonder if he is destined for more than he ever imagined.
As you can tell, Villeneuve brought plenty of starpower with him, and I didn’t even mention everyone. Dave Bautista stars as one of the Harkonnen. Josh Brolin and Jason Mamoa also star on Team Atreides, as Gurney Halleck and (my favorite of the names) Duncan Idaho. Everyone here, from my recollection of the previous film, is pretty well cast. Yet it will come as no surprise that the real stars of Dune are in fact Villeneuve and the technical masters behind it. Dune is one of those films where as I watched it, I sometimes wondered how they were able to film this in a studio. Its production design is what dreams are made of; it’s visual effects as top of the line as they come; the costume design incredibly unique; the score from Hans Zimmer a work of beauty; Greig Fraser’s cinematography even more so. Dune is worthy of plenty of Academy Award recognition.
As a visual experience, Dune is a visual feast. I saw it in IMAX last night and it does inspire awe. As a movie, at first I was so wowed by the visuals that it never really occurred to me that the details of the plot weren’t fully sinking in. Eventually the film does find its groove though and it delivers some spectacular set pieces. At two and a half hours, Dune is a long sit, and perhaps you’d have to be a real Dune believer to think otherwise, but there are enough great moments in it to certainly make it worth your while. Not to mention, in trying to do complete justice to the source material, this was probably the way that the story needed to be told.
Over the last five years, Villeneuve’s contributions to the science fiction genre has been astonishing. 2016’s Arrival is very close to, if not, a masterpiece; 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 even more so. So it only makes sense for him to tackle a project this ambitious, and material this beloved. There is greatness within Dune, but in the end, it isn’t quite a great movie. Throughout I fought with myself on whether or not it was good, or really good. From where I’m sitting, Dune isn’t a great movie yet. And no, I didn’t just stumble out of the Tenet.
Dune’s ambition is certainly an admirable strength, but it also sort of turns out to be the film’s flaw, and it can really be summarized by Zendaya’s last line: “This is only the beginning.” This Dune hopefully won’t be the last, but it’s only part of the story. Where a movie like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings can tell a chapter of a larger story and still be effective as a stand-alone film, Dune does only feel like it’s just the beginning. We’re given a good film with Dune, but it isn’t a complete one, and maybe with sequels, the greatness on display here will be elevated. All being well, Villeneuve will be given the chance to complete his vision, because judging from this first Dune, he, like Paul Atreides, seems destined for greatness.
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