Dune is a majestic tone poem and propulsive chase movie, a grand science-fiction adventure the likes of which we rarely see anymore: the auteur blockbuster. The new millennium brought higher budgets, better technology, and a willingness of the studio system of yore to pair creative geniuses with considerable backing. The first decade of such brought three trilogies of three distinct genres: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (fantasy), Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean (swashbuckler), and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight (superhero). They represent the very best of big budget franchise filmmaking, each stemming from a singular craftsman and cinematic voice, each of those voices allowed to sing, to proffer us their unique gifts, quirks, and particular sensibilities. Audiences responded in kind, to the tune of billions of dollars. The second decade brought the rise of cinematic universes, not a problem itself, but with such came factory farm productions, the antithesis of what came before. Whereas the first ten to twelve years were rife with auteur blockbusters, eventually studios like Marvel decided it was less risky and more efficient to establish house styles for their franchises. Dune is a return to the auteur, a grandiose, idiosyncratic picture that evokes Lawrence of Arabia or 2001 more than it does what passes for modern science fiction (The Tomorrow War) or fantasy (Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings)
Set twenty-thousand years in the future, in a time when mankind has conquered space to such an extent life in the stars resembles Star Wars more than Star Trek, Dune follows Paul of House Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and heir to the throne of Caladan, their family’s home planet. They are gifted by the Emperor the harsh desert planet Arrakis, to serve as fief ruler and harvest the desert’s invaluable substance “spice.” Their enemy House Harkonnen, a legion of inhuman barbarians led by gluttonous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgaard), has been exiled from the planet they once conquered, and they’re not happy about it. Unbeknownst to Atreides, a conspiracy is afoot to destroy their growing power and prestige in the empire, and Paul finds himself at the center of a centuries-old prophecy involving psychic witches, an indigenous people called the Fremen, and the power to command the minds of others, taught to him by his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and known only as “the voice.” Narratives invoking prophecies and The Chosen One are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, but Villenueve signals to his audience the increasingly uneasy feeling that Paul’s prophecy is a possible red herring and perhaps a subversion of the white savior complex. Denis opens on a scene of Harkonnens decimating a population of Fremen, the mysterious voice of Chani (Zendaya) posing the question “who will our next oppressors be?” before cutting to Paul asleep under the pitter-patter of rain outside his bedroom window. For those who thought this might be your standard Chosen One charity drama, Villenueve lets them know in the first five minutes that may not be the case.
Once the conspiracy takes root and House Atreides finds itself under attack, Dune transitions from world-building to world-destroying. Villenueve has a unique gift for gargantuan sets, for juxtaposing the enormity of space ships and assorted objects against the smallness of man. He finds the eerie and ethereal beauty in both nature and technology, from the sun-kissed deserts of day to the foreboding deserts of night, from the machines which harvest spice to the deadly drones which resemble mosquitos. What he has accomplished here is nothing short of astonishing in terms of technical achievement, his blend of practical and computer-generated VFX second to none in making tactile the planets of Caladan, Arrakis, and Geidi Prime (home planet of Harkonnen) and their imposing architecture. He even uses custom-made machines to cause the desert sand to vibrate in anticipation of the story’s iconic sandworms. Unlike many tentpole endeavors in 2021, the landscapes, large structures, and lush environments here look photo-real, the result of painstaking attention to detail, something sorely lacking in otherwise decent actioners like Shang Chi. Dune gives meaning to so-called “cinema,” utilizing sights and sounds to tell a story more so than with dialogue, and doing so with emphatic immersion, be it Greg Fraser’s eye-popping cinematography or Hans Zimmer’s memorable score. The former’s work is Oscar-worthy, showering the Harkonnens in rain and shadow, and rendering the deserts of Arrakis both a gorgeous sea of dunes and a desolate wasteland of doom. The latter’s work uses bagpipes, throat-singing, and traditional compositions to create a sound that is both unique and overwhelming, in a good way. Voice-over narration is thankfully limited, and much of the sci-fi jargon is kept to a relative minimum.
As Paul, Timothee Chalamet smartly underplays the character’s quiet brooding and sense of unease about his future. His eyes do most of the work, such as when forced by witch Gaius Helen (Charlotte Rampling) to endure a test of wills, a test of his ability to embrace the power of his mind over pain in his body. Watching him slowly change from on the verge of quitting to overcoming and remaining calm is a subtle masterclass. Chalamet is surrounded by a serious cadre of movie stars and character actors. Oscar Isaac exudes paternal warmth and a skeptic’s eye towards their new venture on Arrakis, and his final scene in the film is a memorable last stand against tyranny. Jason Momoa likably evokes a dog’s loyalty and a warrior’s spirit as Paul’s military pal, Skarsgaard is positively, appropriately revolting as ominous Vladimir, and Javier Bardem appears briefly and enigmatically as a Fremen leader joined with Chani. Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, and Chang Chen round out the cast, but it’s Ferguson who shines brightest. She’s both a brave, resolute mother and a witch fearful for her son’s future, belonging she does to the Bene Gesserit, the same cult of pseudo-religious psychics as Helen. When adapting a dense novel to film, there are inevitably sacrifices made, and it seems the biggest sacrifice here were the Harkonnens. Relatively little time is devoted to their culture, planet, or peculiarities compared to those of House Atreides and the Fremen. We’re given tantalizing bits in order to explain their motivations and a few morbid habits, but not enough to get a sense about their livelihoods. We can only assume Bautista’s brutish warrior had many scenes left on the cutting room floor.
Based on Frank Herbert’s mercurial novel, Dune was always going to be an ambitious undertaking, but in the hands of Denis Villenueve and his collaborators it is an achievement on the scale of some of cinema’s greatest epics, as well as a return to idiosyncratic filmmaking on a grand budget. Denis’ slow-burn style and tactile aesthetics ground the fantastical locales and science fiction trappings while a starry cast bring heart, girth, and gravitas to the world they’re inhabiting. Elevated by Fraser’s awe-inspiring lensing and Zimmer’s awesome pipes, as well as a compelling messianic plot tying in environmentalism (subtle) and imperialism (not subtle), and this is so far the best film of the year. It’s a stunning visual and aural experience, a feast for the eyes in IMAX and the ears in DOLBY, and a sweeping, semi-classical hero’s journey in the vein of Greek mythology. When an initial title card pops up proclaiming this as “Part One,” do not fear if you recall the days of Lord of the Rings, for this is shaping to be an accomplishment near to Jackson’s seminal work. As Chani says as Paul, Jessica, and the Fremen look to the future, ever hopeful, “this is only the beginning.”
P.S. This is also the beginning of the Oscar race as it pertains to folks who don’t seek out each and every itty-bitty-baity project, so if the Academy has any sense of self-preservation they will nominate Dune in Best Picture and Best Director.