Few films are as buzzy as DUNE in the past decade and after nearly a year delay, its eventual release date felt like it crept up on me all of sudden. The press screening was packed, which wasn’t always the case lately as most screenings have been barely half full. But DUNE felt like a cinematic event, and the visuals on screen certainly attest to that. No wonder, Denis Villeneuve wasn’t pleased that DUNE will be released on HBO Max the same day as its theatrical opening, even from the first five minutes, this is a film to be seen in as big a screen as possible.
Right from its opening screen, I was immediately in awe of the visuals… the world building that Villeneuve has done with his longtime collaborator Patrice Vermette. Set in the year 10191, the universe of DUNE is undeniably vast, so I’m glad I had read up about it leading up to the film. It certainly helps me digest the plot a bit better, which begins on planet Caladan, where the leader of the House Atreides, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is preparing for a new role as the governor of Arrakis.
It’s a lucrative gig given the desert planet is the only place the vital natural resource of spice, aka melange, can be found in the galaxy. Of course, that new power comes with a dangerous enemy, especially from the House Harkonnen, the previous family in charge of mining the spice. Like any greedy colonial government, the Harkonnen is good at stripping any place of its natural resources and use it for their own gain. Naturally they’re not happy to have to leave Arrakis and would do anything to regain control of it.
At the center of the story is Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the Duke’s son and heir of the royal house. Obviously he’s special given what he’s to inherit, but he’s also got special powers thanks to his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who belongs to a mythical intergalactic guild comprised of women with special powers called Bene Gesserit. The scene between Paul is tested by the guild’s leader Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) is a memorable one and filled with mystery and suspense. The film shows just how revered and powerful this group is, as Mohiam is seen talking to and wielding her influence in both royal houses.
The set design, architecture, costumes, and the futuristic elements are marvelous to look at. The Atreides’ home base in Arrakis capital Arrakeen looks like a world war bunker with its angular shape, which I read is what the style was modeled after. The construction looks like it could withstand the extreme climate and high winds of the desert planet. I especially LOVE the four-winged, dragonfly-like chopper (ornithopter) used by the Atreides, which apparently built for real by a company in England specifically for the film. This meticulous details of futuristic elements are the kind of stuff we go see a sci-fi movie for! I’ve always appreciate films shot on location and the fact that DUNE was filmed in UAE and Jordan definitely lends authenticity to the story, you could almost believe this desert planet actually exists.
Given the complexity of the story, this film could’ve easily get bogged down by exposition. Thankfully, the script by Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth and Villeneuve did a good job in not over-explaining things. I like how Dr. Liet-Kynes, the planetary ecologist explain how the Fremen stillsuits work to help survive Arrakis’ harsh environment while commenting on how Paul seems to already been familiar with a world he never steps foot in. It’s obvious that Paul, like his mother, has supernatural abilities who’s destined for adventure and greatness.
One of my favorite scene is when Paul is in his room studying about Arrakis via holographic imagery and senses a foreign object has trespassed his space. It’s such a cool, thrilling scene that’s beautifully-filmed. Given this is just first part of the story, the script feels more enigmatic that sparks my curiosity. I like all the mystery of it all… the secrecy surrounding Bene Gesserit, the Fremen’s native people and desert power, etc. There’s a lot to take in, but the film makes it enjoyable to digest them.
Hans Zimmer‘s music helps immerse me in the desert universe with its Middle-Eastern motifs and African beats. Just like Villeneuve, Zimmer has been a huge fan of the book in his teenage years. He seems to relish working on this project and the result is an evocative, soulful and rousing score. As much as I love it though, the music can get overwhelming in some scenes as it overpowers the action. I think in certain parts, the music could have been toned down a bit.
I have to commend Villeneuve in the one thing that many filmmakers struggle with, and that is pacing. It’s especially crucial in films over 2 hours long, but for me, its 2.5-hour running time didn’t feel like a drag. I do have my quibbles–for one, the films does feel overly indulgent at times, likely because of the director’s passion for the subject matter. The film’s energy also dips a bit in the second act, but overall it’s well-paced and the talented actors help keep me engaged throughout.
Oh and what an ensemble cast it was! Chalamet is perfect as the film’s protagonist, he’s got a strong screen presence with his handsome, youthful face and lithe figure. There’s an inner tumult and angst, which is typical in a teenage boy, but there seems to be something deeper that plagues him… as he constantly dreams of a Fremen girl that’s both seductive and ominous. Zendaya’s Chani is an important figure in the story. Though she doesn’t really get to do much until the third act, her presence is felt throughout through Paul’s dreams.
In the House Atredeis side, I love how commanding and regal Oscar Isaac looks as the Duke with his glorious grayish hair and matching beard. Apparently he lobbied for a role in DUNE and he’s spot on as the patriarch who’s protective but also loving to his heir. But then again, he rarely made a wrong move since I first laid eyes on him in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood as Prince John. I’ve loved Rebecca Ferguson since The White Queen series and she’s got the beauty, strength and certain mystical aura as Lady Jessica. She has the most screen time with Chalamet here and I like the unconventional mother-son dynamic. In many ways, his mother is also his mentor as she was still training Paul to use the ‘voice,’ an audio-neuro mechanism used to manipulate others.
As the Duke’s most trusted military advisers, both Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa have the brute force as well as intellect required for the roles. The fighting scenes are pretty cool to watch, especially since the characters use an invisible shield, some kind of protective energy field that make them temporarily impervious from harm. Charlotte Rampling is not in the film much but you definitely won’t forget her in one pivotal scene. In the House Harkonnen side, we’ve got the villainous Baron Harkonnen, who looks like an oily version of Jabba the Hutt. Stellan Skarsgård portrayed the role in full body prosthetic jumpsuit. He doesn’t have to act much as his body makeup alone does the work. Baron is more repulsive than scary, while Dave Bautista barely has much to do here as his henchman.
Javier Bardem plays the leader of a Fremen tribe who has the audacity to visit the House Atredeis without an invitation. He’s a knight-like figure who’s strong and defiant, but like Zendaya, we only get to see him prominently in the third act. Taiwanese actor Chen Chang has some memorable moments as House Atredeis’ family physician Dr. Yueh despite his limited screen time. Last but definitely not least, there’s Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet-Kynes who’s easily one of my favorite characters in the entire film. Apparently the film changed the gender of the character from male to female in the book, which I think works just as well. Duncan-Brewster has a charismatic presence here so I’m glad to see her featured prominently throughout.
I think fans of the book would likely have more things to pick apart than those who have not, such as myself. Herbert’s book has an anti-imperial, anti-colonial themes woven in its larger arcs. Even without reading the book, I could see the unsubtle commentary on Middle Eastern oil (swapped for the spice in this story) and also its environmental message that resonates today in regards to climate change and lack of care for our planet. As for the ‘white savior trope’ criticism towards the book, Villeneuve himself has addressed that as saying that ‘…it’s not a celebration of a savior, but more of a criticism of the idea of a savior, of someone that will come and tell another population how to be, what to believe.’ As someone from a SE Asian country that was colonized for over three centuries by a small country who literally mined our spices, obviously I’m not fond of this commonly-used narrative.
To be fair, I think Villeneuve has tread carefully in this regard and present Paul’s story as someone who struggles with the idea that he’s seen as a savior. He’s shown as being passionate to learn about Arrakis and its people. There’s a scene where he’s talking to a Fremen watering the native palm trees. You can imagine how precious water is to a desert planet, and Paul questions whether the water should be saved for the people instead.
There’s also a scene where he and his mother mimic the Desert Walk of the Fremen where one alters its rhythm while walking on sand. It’s not just for efficiency but for survival given the giant sand worm is a constant threat. The fictional extraterrestrial desert creature is meticulously designed and it’s quite thrilling and suspenseful every time it glides through under the sand and practically swallow everything in its path, even a giant mining machine, if you can’t outrun it.
Overall I’m impressed with what Villeneuve has done in bringing his vision of DUNE to life. It’s more than just a feast for the eyes, but the narrative delivery offers something thrilling and thought-provoking. The version we’re seeing is in fact Villeneuve’s vision from when he was a teen when he first read Frank Herbert’s influential sci-fi novel. I’ve mentioned in this post that I haven’t seen the David Lynch version, or should I say the Dino De Laurentiis version as Lynch disowned it. Not that it matters as Villeneuve has said repeatedly that his version wouldn’t have any semblance to the 1984 film. ‘Fear is the mind-killer,’ that’s the book’s mantra, but it might as well be Villeneuve’s as well given he dared to tackle something deemed ‘unfilmable.’ Tackling this weighty project obviously takes some massive ambition, passion and craftsmanship. It takes an even higher level of courage given that the Montreal-born director took this on after the major box office bomb of Blade Runner 2049 which also happens to be a remake of a 1980s version.
Now, I’m not saying this movie is without flaws. I was hoping there’d be more emotional resonance given the high stakes. I didn’t connect with some of the key characters as much I had hoped, either because they’re under-developed or inaccessible. I figure it’s par for the course that the film feels incomplete, as this is just the first part of the whole story (even the poster spells it out… IT BEGINS). One thing for sure, there’s enough to get me invested in the world of DUNE, and the ending certainly makes me hope we get to see the conclusion in part II.