Review: Dune

Finally arriving on the big screen, Dune is worth the wait. But there are some irritations.

Tens of thousands of years into the future, a prince begins trials of the mind, body, and spirit as his family embark on a task of governing a rare resource that allows for interstellar travel. But as they do, political feuds rage, and war is imminent.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the most well known and critically acclaimed science fiction novels ever written, and has spun into a series of books long after he passed away. There has been, now, two major motion pictures, and two television mini-series, each attempting to capture this lightning. A classic hero’s journey story, following the conflict between House Atreides and House Harkonnen over the possession of the desert world Arrakis, and its precious Spice melange. All beneath the watchful eyes of a galactic Imperium and a mysterious sect of foreseers.

The first motion picture was released in 1984, directed by David Lynch. It was an abridged version of the novel; condensing the story into a single 130 minute feature. It is a very memorable (albeit now dated) experience, but it proved divisive and was considered a flop upon release. Lynch himself has gone on record stating it was “a failure”.

So a remake was not out of the question, despite Lynch’s effort being not without plenty of merit. Acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) has said that directing an adaptation of Dune was always one of his passions. He certainly is the man for the job; his directorial style is slow and full of visual flair.
And certainly, this film has the stark realism of his previous films, along with a worn, weathered and grainy grimness to every scene. There is an awesome sense of scale in the movie, namely from the iconic sand worms, which are gigantic creatures that live under the sands of Arrakis. All of the equipment and technology is shown as very kinetic and worn out, or bulky and utilitarian, there’s a sense of realness alongside the more fantastical elements.
The acting is good across the board, from Oscar Isaac as the noble Duke Leto Atreides, Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen, to name a couple. Timothée Chalamet plays our hero, Paul Atreides. He is very good considering everything he has to deliver. A bright kid, who is under the pressure of one day leading House Atreides, but also the bloodline of the Bene Gesserit; a secretive caste of farseeing women (of whom his mother is part of) who manipulate galactic politics for their own designs. He does a great job as a boy who’s worldly understanding is shredded.

The music though. Composer Hans Zimmer has got a lot of attention over the last two decades, especially within Christopher Nolan movies. However, he actually declined to score Nolan’s 2020 film Tenet so that he could work on Dune. That is already saying something.
But Zimmer does an incredible job here. An evocative collision of tribal singing, industrial percussion, and a deep reverberating thrum. There are distinct themes for each of the warring factions, and for Arrakis itself. The music tells the story as much as the dialogue does, and conveys the deeper emotions of the characters and their agency even further.

Headlines recently have asked whether Warner Brothers were going to fund a sequel at all, since the property was already financially questionable on top of the release delays due to Covid-19. They released the film as “Dune”, suggesting the complete novel, similarly as with the 1984 film, and not episodic. This is counter to what the film’s opening credits say: “Dune: Part One”. This film was released as a singular film; the director did not know until weeks after release that he would be allowed to make the sequel. In fact, Villeneuve was humble, stating that the audience had to choose to want a sequel, and that he would very dearly hope they would.

This is not, ultimately, a detriment to the film. However, it can cause some dissonance with audiences. While the title says “Part One”, the film is still marketed as Dune. This actually being the first half of the book could cause confusion, not just for the abrupt ending, but also the overall pacing and payoff. Some will find a second viewing more rewarding.

For all intents and purposes, this is an adaptation of Dune, and a damn fine one at that. However, it is only the first half, and had Warner Brothers actually pulled the plug on Villeneuve’s dream, it would have disappeared completely into obscurity. The film needs its second part to feel especially rewarding or stable. Moreover, it needs its second part to be consistent with what came before, and elaborate on more of the interstellar politicking at play.

If you are a fan of the book, you will probably find it a good adaptation. In terms of cinema, it is head and shoulders above what we consider “blockbusters” these days, and Villeneuve delivers yet another cerebral experience that doesn’t always rely on fast-paced action and relentless gimmicks and tentpole scenes to keep itself afloat. The massive public support for the film speaks volumes as to what people want now.

Additional Marshmallows: There was also an issue with the sound mixing? Whether this was the cinema, or the film itself, is not clear. But often character dialogue was too quiet or drowned out by ambient sound.

Additional, Additional Marshmallows: This is the second viewing I had of the movie. The first viewing, the cinema screen I was at was under-performing the movie. It felt a little empty, in sound mostly. The second viewing was at a screen with great surround sound, and the film benefitted massively.

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