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Dune

By | October 26th, 2021
Posted in Movies, Reviews | % Comments

After what seems like years of speculation and waiting, the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is finally upon us. Dune is one of those titles that seems to always show up on lists of impossible or difficult to film, and boy have there have been attempts. French filmmaker, Alejandro Jodorowsky, notoriously tried and failed to adapt the book in 1975. It would have been a version that would have featured Salvador Dalí and Orson Welles vibing to Pink Floyd! Next was David Lynch’s infamous version in 1984 featuring Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, and of course the singer Sting all vibing to the band Toto. Lynch’s film hit a lot of the foundational parts of Dune, but was critically panned as a confusing mess. Sixteen years later, the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) made its own attempt in 2000, breaking free from the limits of film and presenting the story in a 6-hour mini series featuring William Hurt. I remember watching this when it originally aired, but honestly have to admit I only remember bemusedly enjoying the outrageous costume designs. It must have been successful enough for Sci-Fi as they later produced a second miniseries pulling together the next two books in the series. This one also had outrageous costume designs and a young James McAvoy. History lesson done, this brings us to now and the most recent attempt at presenting Dune to the world.

Villeneuve had already recently wowed science fiction fans with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, so anticipation for what he would be able to do with Frank Herbert’s seminal classic was very high. Did I feel that he delivered on expectations? Mostly.

Villeneuve’s Dune is a gorgeous film. Working with cinematographer Greig Fraser (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Mandalorian, The Batman), Villeneuve has given us a sumptuous galaxy to feast on. From the waters and highlands of the Atreides home world, Caledon, to the sun-scorched and windswept dunes of Arrakis, we are given grand vistas that almost make one understand why Villeneuve was so insistent people see this film in the theater. (Disclosure: I watched it at home on my 4K TV while lying on my couch. It was great.) The one thing that really struck me as I watched this film was the sheer scale of what was on the screen. We all know that we are insignificant relative to the immensity of space, and that was really driven home. A tactic that Dune uses several times through the film is to show you some enormous object (Guild heighliner, a spice harvester, a sandworm, etc.) at a distance and then close in on humans standing nearby so that you realize how enormous the object must be. The design in the film goes beyond just the wide shots, though. We are given close-ups of machinery, weapons, and clothing that reveals great thought and attention to their design and look.

Another area where I feel that Dune excelled at was its casting. Casting a new Dune movie has been fodder for online discussions and SF Con conversations for as long as I have been online (aka a long time). Of course it became an incredibly hot topic as soon as it was announced that Villeneuve would be tackling the project. From my impression, it seems that he really nailed the casting squarely on the head. As is expected, Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides carries much of the weight of the film on his shoulders. Paul was always going to be a tough character to portray as he is character that presents as both a young man just coming into his own and also wiser beyond his years, and Chalamet managed to walk the line between the two dynamics well. His Paul is acted as a youth that circumstances (as ducal heir) and training have matured beyond his physical years, but there are still instances where the boy still reflected. At some points we see him act petulantly towards his parents and his instructors, or times when he breaks ceremonial ranks to run and greet his instructors after a separation, just as one would expect from a 16-year old boy. We also get to see him struggle with his growing awareness of the destiny that awaits him, though not to the degree of the internal monologues in the novel.

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Many of the other roles are also filled just as ably as Paul with standout performances from Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto (was there ever any doubt about this?), and Stellan Skarsgård as the villainous Baron Harkonnen. Honestly, when the cast was first being announced, the only role that I had any serious concern about was Jason Momoa as Atreides retainer and swordsman Duncan Idaho, because I had always pictured the character as whip-slender and small – more Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride than Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones. But it did not take long for Momoa’s take on the role to win me over – the man is damn charming and he has great physicality on the screen.

But I do feel that there were a couple of missteps with the cast. The first was Dave Bautista as the Beast Rabban – not that the role was miscast, far from that, Bautista was perfect for the role. My issue is that we have seen a lot more nuance from Bautista in other roles, including his small part in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, and I feel that could have more done to use him better in this role or in the film. The other, more glaring, issue I had with the cast was Javier Bardem as the Fremen leader, Stilgar. Again, it was an instance where it seems like a really good casting, but I felt he was not directed correctly. Bardem played Bardem as we’ve seen him in other films, instead of playing Stilgar. Since his character would play a much expanded role in a Part 2 (if it happens – fingers crossed!), there is an opportunity to see the harder and shrewder Stilgar I expected.

Dune did not do everything well. I was surprised and rather impressed at how loyal it stuck to the book as I was expecting more liberties to be taken in adapting it. This serves as both a good thing for you purists out there, but it also handicapped the film from providing greater nuance to the setting and actions of the players. There were a few notable scenes chopped out – mainly scenes that set up the greater political situation in the galaxy, but those scenes helped develop the motivations of characters like Baron Harkonnen, beyond just his ill-defined feud with the Atreides and greed, and why he was supported by the unseen Emperor. Personally, I was not troubled by these lapses, but then I am a big fan of Dune and reread the novel often, including earlier this year. I am troubled for the more casual fan who has not read the book. The film moves FAST – and it really needs to because it needs to cover a lot of ground, although it only covers the first part of the novel. For every lingering shot of the landscapes that I praised earlier, it needed to race from plot point to plot point to make sure us viewers got to the place where Villeneuve ended the film. This speed leaves little to answer the question why our characters are doing what they are doing – beyond simple reactions to what is happening around them. Quiet moments between characters where they reveal more of themselves to the other character and to the audience are rare and short-lived. I feel this is a shame because it seems clear that the cast really understood their roles (except maybe Bardem) and the world that Villeneuve created around them. It would have been nice to explore them deeper than what we got. That being said, I really do not know what I would change from the film we got to get this character development. The film comes in at a hefty 2 hours and 35 minutes and nearly all of that is needed to get us where we needed to be at the end.

And speaking about the end – I would be remiss in not noting that Dune only gives us the first part of the novel and the end of the film is left hanging for a second part. A second part that is not currently guaranteed at all. It would be a real shame if we do not get the second part, but that is in the hands of the execs at Warner Brothers. (Editor’s Note: Legendary Pictures confirmed this afternoon that a sequel has been greenlit for release on October 20, 2023.) 

In conclusion, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune gives us a gorgeous and plot-packed adaptation of the classic novel. We get wonderful and dedicated performances by the cast, although I wish we could have spent more time with them in scenes that were not so plot-driven. Despite my little quibbles, I absolutely enjoyed watching this film, and it may very likely be the film that breaks my pandemic-driven theater drought.


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Frank Skornia

Frank is a longtime fan of science fiction and fantasy, enjoying a wide range of material across the spectrum of media. He is also an avid gamer, enjoying video games, board games, and RPGs of all sorts. Frank is also a really big fan of Godzilla. You can find him on Twitter at @FSkornia.

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