“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Denis Villeneuve’s newest cinematic experience Dune is a force to be reckoned with. Villeneuve, the French-Canadian director of such masterpieces as Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, is back with his most ambitious project yet. An eponymous adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 896-page literary classic, “Dune.” The story concerns House Atreides, one of a number of galactic Houses in the year 10191, being offered a desert planet called Arrakis by the galaxy’s Emperor. Arrakis is the only planet to produce spice, an element vital to galactic functions. House Atreides reluctantly accepts, and leaves their home planet of Caladan in order to ally with the Fremen, Arrakian natives, and work towards galactic peace. However, when they arrive, warfare – both political and physical – ensues. At the heart of the story is Duke Leto Atreides’ son, Paul, who journeys with his mother Jessica into the Arrakian desert to fix the war and bring peace to the galaxy. The film released last Thursday, to incredibly positive reviews. And indeed, Dune is nothing short of phenomenal on almost every level.
165 million dollars were funneled into the making of Dune, and it shows. From the minute the film begins to the moment credits roll, the film is flawless on a technical level. The costumes have a brilliant “period piece” look, but with modifications made by costume designers Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan so that you have no doubt the period in question is 8000 years in the future. The score by composer Hans Zimmer (Inception, The Lion King) is magnificent and fits the film’s epic Arabian tone perfectly. It is also a stupendous soundtrack to listen to independently – and indeed, I am listening to it while I type this very sentence. The visual effects, especially for the massive 400-foot-long “sandworms” that live under the sand on Arrakis, are stunning – and the same goes for the monumentally impressive sound design that immerses you in the film entirely. Dune is a gorgeous film; every frame can be paused, printed, and framed on your wall. There is not a scene that lacks Villeneuve’s extraordinary direction. Everything from Paul saying goodbye to his home, to the Duke being welcomed to Arrakis, to characters narrowly escaping a sandworm is shot with an unprecedented amount of precision and beauty. And all that isn’t even considering the transformative makeup on the Baron Harkonnen, the film’s primary antagonist, or the gargantuan production design that looks and feels bigger than anything you’ve ever seen. Suffice it to say, Dune looks and sounds incredible, and you should pay a visit to the theater to see it if at all possible.
While the truly special people involved in Dune exist behind the camera, the people in front of it are just as remarkable. The cast is one of the most star-studded of the year. Timothée Chalamet, acclaimed actor known for films such as Little Women and Call Me By Your Name, is the film’s lead. He plays Paul with subtlety, depth, and poise. There are certain scenes that will have you surprised at just how much of an impact his performance has on the film. And Chalamet is joined by even bigger names than he. Mission Impossible and Greatest Showman star Rebecca Ferguson plays Paul’s mother Jessica, a member of a mystical order of women with mysterious powers known as the Bene Gesserit. Ferguson’s performance is one of power, conflict, and raw emotion – she is determined to protect her son with her life, but also knows she must make her son vulnerable to attack if he is to grow and win the battles he will inevitably fight. This dynamic between the two drives much of the emotional core of the film, along with Oscar Isaac’s (The Force Awakens) incredible performance as Duke Leto Atreides. As you might expect, Isaac’s character is a wise and dutiful character who can look and sound very powerful when he wishes to be. But he’s also a warm father to Paul, who assures him that he will be a great leader one day – but does not have to be if he does not wish to. He will go down in cinematic history as one of the best and most fatherly performances in film. The movie’s central actors are joined by many supporting ones. Aquaman‘s Jason Momoa, who plays charming warrior Duncan Idaho. Zendaya, known for her roles in the Spider-Man films, plays Chani, a mysterious Fremen girl. Josh Brolin of Avengers: Infinity War, playing wise teacher and military leader Gurney Halleck. And many, many more people – all of whom join together to create one of the most impressive and dynamic ensembles of the decade. If the magic behind the camera and the beauty in front of it do not make for a convincing enough argument to experience Dune, the incredible cast absolutely should.
No film is without its flaws, and unfortunately, Dune is no exception. The main problem with Dune can be found in its screenplay, specifically how it adapts a certain portion of a book. In the film, shortly after the Atreides arrive on Arrakis, a major event happens – this is a spoiler-free review, so I’ll keep things vague. However, in the book, there are over 50 pages of content in between the “Arrakian arrival” scene and the event-that-must-not-be-named. Cutting the pages resulted in lesser character development, several characters being cut almost entirely, and explanations of crucial topics such as Mentats and the Bene Gesserit being laughably minimal. The cuts are not awkward, and even the most tuned-in fan of the book would not notice them too much in the moment. However, when the credits roll, the technical masterpiece you just watched feels oddly vacant on a story level. Those who haven’t read the book in advance will likely be confused about many things. They may feel that the movie was cool, but lacked a reason for them to care deeply for the world and the characters. In addition to that, it’s likely they will be somewhat confused by several elements of the film, seeing as Villeneuve has excluded a lot of important exposition. If I could change the film, I would add half an hour of content to it. All of Villeneuve’s additions to the story (several minor book characters are more prevalent in the film, some events are swapped around, etc.) I would keep, but these thirty minutes would hopefully fill the narrative vacancies. Yes, this would make Dune over three hours long – but frankly, this is sometimes necessary for literary adaptations. The three Lord of the Rings installments were all over three hours long, and the narrative of Dune is equivalent to at least two of the “Lord of the Rings” books. However, it’s important to recognize that this flaw is not nearly as massive as it sounds. It took several hours for me to gather my thoughts, and find a flaw lurking among thousands of strengths.
Lastly, it’s important to realize that Dune only adapts the first half of the book. In fact, the opening title of the movie has a subtitle reading “Part 1.” Dune: Part 2 has been confirmed for a release in October of 2023, and will also be directed and written by Denis Villeneuve. So if you adored this film but are craving more, you’re in luck. In short, Dune is a technical powerhouse with a star-studded ensemble that you have to see on the biggest screen possible. It has its faults, mainly deriving from its adaptation of the source material, but not even that can keep myself and the vast majority of audiences and critics from calling it a true masterpiece.