Let it flow, let it flow, can’t hold it back anymore…
So Denis Villeneuve has decided to grace us with his presence following the incredible Blade Runner 2049, a truly spectacular work of science fiction from a mind that also gave us the amazing Arrival, Sicario, and Prisoners. I mentioned before that Villeneuve’s films found their way into my top 10 every year he releases something, so I was always down for whatever demented idea he had next. And demented he must be to tackle one of the most seminal works of science fiction, a project that has routinely been referred to as “unfilmable,” Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. So how did he do? Well I’ve got some good news…and a bit of bad.
So for a quick synopsis (yes dorks, it’s not that hard), we find ourselves 8000 years into the future where humanity has become a spacefaring feudal civilization under the thrall of a universal emperor. Space travel is only feasible with a substance known as “spice” that can only be harvested on desert planet of Arrakis, known to many as “Dune.” We primarily follow Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), as his family has been tasked to oversee the harvesting of spice by the emperor. But the task is beset with danger on all sides, from the inhospitable environment of Arrakis to the natives of the planet none too pleased by a bunch of outsiders mucking up the place. But the biggest threat comes from the Atreides’ rivals, House Harkonnen, who are conspiring to end their centuries-long rivalry once and for all.
For those of you unfamiliar with the source material, you may be picking up on a few parallels with other works of fiction ranging from James Cameron’s Avatar to Game of Thrones. And you’d be absolutely correct that there’s a strong vibe from the sources mixed in with some good ol’ Star Wars (complete with Jedi mind tricks) and about ten other sci-fi and fantasy franchises you can think of. This is not meant to be derogatory, Frank Herbert’s novel predates several of these works by several years and has no doubt influenced many a writer since its publication. Instead, I’m using this as a selling point to ease your thoughts that this movie wouldn’t be accessible, because it most certainly finds clever ways of cultural osmosis to introduce to you complex concepts without getting bogged down in boring exposition dumps.
Which is pretty important since it allows you to focus on the various characters and their political/personal struggles that weave together in surprising ways. On that note, there’s a bit of stumbling block in that the writing feels a bit flat for certain characters, most notably in your protagonist. But it’s made up for by one of the most talented casts I’ve seen assembled. Chalamet in particular impressed me as he’s got to be both emotionally distant in certain sequences but also the hero of a science fiction epic in other scenes. It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, but for the most part he nails it.
Similarly, Oscar Isaac adds another notch to his belt of memorable performances, most notably whenever he’s acting opposite of Chalamet and giving subdued but emotionally resonant moments. But to me, the MVP has to be Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother and Leto’s concubine (spacefaring feudal civilization remember). Fresh off her fun performances in the latter Mission: Impossible flicks, she gives a far different take on a mentor figure to an unconventional protagonist that’s rife with conflicting obligations as a mother, teacher and a devotee of a subversive religion. The rest of the cast do great work as well, but they’re hardly in the movie important as their characters are to the original novel. Yes, this includes the much fussed over Zendaya, who’s barely in this thing.
Bridging everything together is some genuinely great cinematography that fills the screen with beautiful looking shots. This gives plenty of moments of downtime to allow you to process an impactful conversation while simultaneously entertaining with wonderful vistas as well. I’ve seen people are very mixed about the spaceship designs in this production, but I personally found it engaging as they looked so delightfully alien that they really look nothing like what I’ve seen before. Villeneuve understands that as a filmmaker, you have to use everything in your storytelling arsenal from visuals to actors to music to great writing in order to tell a story that’ll keep the audience invested. For the most part, I say he succeeded in filming the unfilmable, let down by only two glaring issues.
Yeah, yeah, Mr. Critic over here has something bad to say about the movie cinephiles and hardcore obsessive fans have praying to be good for almost two years (we were supposed to get this last December were it not for a lovely pandemic we still find ourselves in). For me, I’m always pursuing perfection in films I check out and can recognize an oddity that distracted me from fully enjoying an experience. Just keep in mind my critiques are not exactly deal breakers, and I genuinely think everyone should check this movie out, but sometimes you gotta call a bad decision exactly for what it is.
So the first problem I had is that you keep bouncing between various point of view characters that can feel distracting at points. Yes, I understand this is a science fiction EPIC with a large cast, but it can be a bit alienating when you don’t have time to attach yourselves to any of them. Thankfully, Ferguson and Isaac do a great job in pulling you into their world, but the movie spends a large amount of time on Paul, who’s not given much to do. I understand why (and we’ll get to that soon) but a regular movie viewer is going to be left wondering why the hell should they care about this mopey kid when there are way more interesting people surrounding him. Hell, Jason Momoa felt like he had more fleshed out personality and he barely has any lines in this thing, but he’s such a bombastic personality you know exactly what his deal is supposed to be.
Perhaps Paul will be fleshed out more in a sequel to this movie because, big shock, this movie is only an adaptation of the first half of the original novel. And you know, I have infinitely more respect for the producers behind the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, because they took a massive leap of faith by bankrolling two expensive-as-hell fantasy epics before the first film was even released to the general public, before anyone in Hollywood even realized people wanted to see more of this world. That way audiences could enjoy all three movies back-to-back year after year. Dune Part II, or whatever they wind up calling it, doesn’t even have a budget set or the cast and crew scheduled. So it may not be until end of 2024 when audiences will finally be able to see the conclusion of this story. I was going to say we would have no idea if this sequel would even happen but mercifully I just found out the sequel is officially a go, so the dorks get to have the last laugh on me I suppose.
And without wishing to spoil (I’m not, but if you’re that worried, have a viper bite your eyeballs and skip to the next paragraph), the film doesn’t end at a satisfying juncture. It simply…stops, right after a mediocre fight sequence that pales in comparison to the climactic sequences that occurred not 30 minutes before. It felt like a cheap shot when the last line spoken is, “We’re just getting started.”
I do have some thoughts I’d like to explore about that ending, and maybe I’ll do a separate post about it, but for now all you need to know that despite my issues, I still really dug this movie. I would have given this a strong FULL PRICE were it not for the aforementioned critiques, but I’m absolutely invested in this strange world thanks entirely to this movie and I’m curious to see more of it. So for me, this comes out as a strong…