Review: 'Dune' (2021) Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Based on the 1965 novel of the same name by Frank Herbert, and the second feature adaptation following 1984s cult classic, this is the first instalment in a planned double entry...
The noble House Atreides, overseen by Duke Leto Atreides (Isaac), is granted stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Arrakis is a world full of spice; a powerful drug harvested by many for intergalactic travel and powerful telepathic ability.
House Atreides has an enemy also after the spice for commercial use to fuel their greed and power; House Harkonnen ruled by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Skarsgård) who sets about deception and betryal to bring down Atreides.
It soon falls to the heir of Atreides, Paul (Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Ferguson) to navigate Dune in search of the native Freman tribe, who may hold the secrets Paul and his family need to stop Harkonnen and save not just the planet, but the entire galaxy...
An Emperor. Galactical conflict. Alliances and rebellions. Councils. Desert worlds. Visions and mind-controlling powers. A prophecy. Sound familiar? It may do, but the source material of Frank Herbert's science fiction epic came a decade before George Lucas scripted his galaxy far, far away.
The plot revolves around Spice, an element found on the dangerous desert planet Arrakis - also known as Dune. Spice is used for life-extending abilities and kinetic power by some, and to the rest of the galaxy it is an asset for faster-than-light interplanetary travel, making it the most valued resource in the known universe. This asset is the basis of noble House Atreides thrust into a war for Arrakis against both the native Fremen and a barbaric foe, House Harkonnen. A simple story of good against evil, but weaved through a political and militaristic maze of deception, betrayal, honour and greed.
While not as simple in story as the aforementioned Star Wars, this still retains a mythical template that works for science-fiction; good against evil and everything else in between. Breaking from the shadow of David Lynch's 1984 camp cult-classic, this effort from sci-fi connoisseur Denis Villeneuve is much larger in scope and scale thanks to a much larger budget, a more established cast and a more faithful planned interpretation of the novel, split over two films to allow more breathing space.
The source material is not as complex as feared when broken down this carefully, and it must be said that for the science-fiction genre, it ticks all the boxes for a visual treat and has everything you could want to be entertaining.
Characters are first and fore-most in this adaptation, second only to the scale of the genre they are living in. On one hand we have the likes of naïve Timothée Chalamet, demure Rebecca Ferguson, proud Oscar Isaac and a freshly-cut Jason Momoa of the noble House Atreides, out to strikes political deals and alliances to gain both invaluable resource and respect. On the other hand we have a wonderfully bloated Stellan Skarsgård, a brutal Dave Bautista and slimy David Dastmalchian under House Harkonnen who are out to conquer by any means. Yet in-between them all are the nomadic Fremen of Dune including Javier Bardem, Babs Olusanmokun and Zendaya (who spends most of her screentime in this as a vision).
It's a stacked cast, but all play their roles with great conviction and it's hard to find fault. Timothée Chalamet may lack a certain dominance or intensity as a lead player if it rested on his shoulders alone, but with the cast around him he fits right in. They carry the emotion and chemistry needed for you to get under their skin and understand their roles and motives in this war for Dune, and what sacrifices, betrayals and rewards mean to them. Of course, some may not get the screentime fans would like, but it's an ensemble cast working together to tell a sprawling story to be continued in another film.
It's just over an hour until we get the ripples of excitement to the proceedings with the introduction of the infamous "sand worms" of Dune, a monolithic creature that has adorned many sci-fi arts and interpretations across the decades. Here, they are still as imposing and mighty as we can imagine with CGI bringing them to life. From then it's a rousing interpretation of war - explosions that light up the landscape, tribal drums leading troops into combat, spaceships assaulting from above. It's pulp sci-fi action on a grand, but restrained, almost nightmarish scale based on betrayal and works due to the hour spent with our characters and motives leading to this turning point.
Hans Zimmer provides us with a score that at times feels part Vangelis, part Enya, but all Zimmer with hints of nomadic, tribal cues running though his score. The production is grand, on a scale last seen with Villeneuve's 2017 Blade Runner 2049; sets are minimalistic in another glimpse at a somewhat bleak future, but the colourings and landscapes are absorbing and rich. It really does make for something immersive on the screen when taking a voyage cross fantastical worlds.
Villeneuve and Greig Fraser as cinematographer undercut this adaptation with a heavy sense of militia - a war being fought that is more than just blasters and robots. It's more brutal and personal, with lots of hand-to-hand combat and high personal stakes at risk, giving our heroes and villains a much more darker and often violent path to negate. For a science-fiction film, there's not much science fiction iconography such as robots, hovercars or other nonsense; this isn't always bad, for it lets everything else like the practical sets, costumes and locations speak for themselves.
That's not to say this is perfect film, and it won't appeal to everyone. It's a solid 2hrs 20min runtime that doesn't really drag, but there is lots of exposition and lore talk that will go over the heads of casual audiences or those not aware of the story from the book or original adaptation. Villeneuve's adaptation to the screen does cut out lots of padding, but it's still a very immersive story that is happy to explore religion and myth and takes it time getting to the next area.
The pacing will throw viewers as when things start to get going, the credits roll ready to pick up again in Part Two, and it does take patience to get there. Also, the amount of cast members comes to bear when you realise some don't get as much to do as others, and some of their roles are throwaway when they vanish, and you'll be left wondering who did what and why they are there and if you missed anything.
Yet these are small irks in an otherwise solid piece of film-making that understands and respects the source material, with buckets of visual flair and style to compliment the scope it's going for. It will be worth the investment to see where Part Two takes us.
'Dune' achieves an adaptation worthy of merit, embracing the sci-fi genre for a visually stunning, immersive adventure. It won't please everyone and requires patience, but it's a welcome change to other louder, bombastic offerings.
'Dune' is a Legendary Pictures production