30/12/21 21:41 Filed in: 2021
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothee Chalamet
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
The Padishah Emperor has ordered House Atreides to pack up and move from temperate timberland, Caladan, to arid sandbox, Arrakis. The cosmic house swap is completed when rival House Harkonnen abandons Arrakis for the incoming House Atreides. And so begins an era of peace and prosperity on the Atreides-ruled Arrakis. Guess again!
A member of the Atreides’ inner circle is a traitor. The conspirator arranges for a combined Harkonnen and Sardaukar (Imperial elite soldiers) army to slip into the capital city, Arrakeen, at night. Many Atreides warriors are lost in the battle. Those who survive learn, too late, that they were set up from the start.
That bare bones description of Dune, the latest cinematic envisioning of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel, is only half of the overall story since this film is the first of two parts.
If you struggled to digest the above synopsis, know that it was even more challenging to summarize Herbert’s sprawling epic. Aside from its Machiavellian intrigue, planet-hopping plot, coming-of-age subplot and pseudo-religious underpinnings, the story’s expansive glossary of terms (ornithopters, hunter-seekers, stillsuits, in addition to all the proper nouns listed above) is enough to give you a brain freeze…even on Arrakis.
A world (universe) so rich in different races, beliefs, creatures, weapons and cultures brings to mind another fictional masterwork, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, it isn’t much of a stretch to say that Dune is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. They’re the high-water marks of their respective genres.
For all the diehard, deep cut Dune fans out there, I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject. However, I’ve seen David Lynch’s 1984 film (several times), the mini-series that aired in 2000 on the Sci Fi Channel (now Syfy), and have listened to the unabridged audiobook. That said, take my comments with a grain of sand…or salt.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) has assembled an impressive ensemble of performers. Yet, some of the parts seem miscast. For instance, Timothee Chalamet (Paul Atreides) is ten years older than his character and seems too brooding for the part. Oscar Isaac (Leto Atreides) is too hard-edged and fails to capture the world-weary aspect of the character, as portrayed in the book.
In my opinion, Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista don’t fit their parts and were brought in merely to shore up the movie’s action scenes (and to attract fans of their other movies). I’m conflicted about Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck. Javier Bardem and Stellan Skarsgård are perfect in their roles. The women are fabulous, especially Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica and Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother.
Dune is a visually breathtaking film. The set design, particularly the interiors of the Arrakeen buildings, is nothing short of inspired and lends the film an aesthetic that’s familiar (based on human architecture), yet otherworldly. The costumes, weapons and technology are all well crafted and seamlessly blend into the story’s milieu.
Particularly striking is the film’s array of surface and space-faring ships. The dragonfly-like ornithopters are fun to watch as they flit over dunes and mountains. The harvesters fit the bill as large cargo vessels with tank treads to help them slowly amble across the desert terrain.
With their immense size and angular designs, the capital ships are utterly jaw-dropping. They have an almost physical presence when ominously hovering above the surface. The surreal atmosphere created in these scenes is similar to the effect Villeneuve achieved in Arrival (2016) with his massive, obsidian, contact lens-shaped alien ship.
Despite its stellar production, this film isn’t everything I’d hoped it would be. Compared to the film’s massive scale, the characters seem small and insignificant. Indeed, the characters are swallowed up (as if by a giant sandworm) by the expansive sets and the sheer magnitude of the story. Character moments are few and seem insignificant against the backdrop of interstellar war.
Even the action sequences are uninvolving and (here’s something I never thought I’d say) too short. To provide an omniscient view of the battles, many of the scenes were filmed from a distance. As a consequence, the audience doesn’t get to feel the pulse-pounding intensity of close combat or experience the jeopardy that comes with following the main characters through the battle (e.g., the melees in The Lord of the Rings). The notable exception is when Momoa’s Duncan Idaho sacrifices himself Boromir-style to give his friends time to flee the rapidly approaching Sardaukar.
As with many movies, the biggest drawback here is the story; the screenplay was adapted by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth. Though their script remains faithful to the source material (in most respects), the writers focused their attention on servicing the fans more than clarifying story elements for the newcomers. Granted, the narrative can be confusing, even to the initiated, but the writers failed to provide adequate context for the story’s plethora of planets and peoples. They dole out bits of exposition at a pace that might lose some spectators. If I wasn’t already familiar with the world of Dune, I would’ve been thoroughly confused by this presentation of Herbert’s novel.
One element that should remain invisible in any movie is the score. As a rule, noticing the music isn’t a good thing, because it can pull you out of the reality of the film. Much of Hans Zimmer’s score for Dune is like listening to an army of rhythmically-challenged people pounding on metal garbage can lids with turkey legs. This type of grating, banging, industrial sounding accompaniment, complete with screaming electric guitars, is fitting for the handful of Harkonnen scenes, but not for the bulk of the score.
Some of the music is noteworthy; Middle Eastern sounds are used for the Fremen scenes and there’s a beautiful passage with a soprano during one scene. But overall, the word I’d use to describe Zimmer’s score is “obnoxious” (or perhaps just “noxious”). I recently purchased his soundtrack for No Time to Die which is way, way better (and far more listenable) than this effort.
Despite being the best visualized version of Herbert’s classic, this presentation of Dune is a mild disappointment. Unlike its scorching hot environs, the story is cold and aloof, offering insufficient context and scant character development. In a strange paradox, the film manages to be both awe-inspiring (production) and uninspiring (story).
The ending leaves the audience lost in the desert. We’ll see if they find their way back to the theater for Dune, Part 2.
Rating: 3 out of 4