After months of a pandemic-rooted delay, Dune (2021) has finally graced screens around the world. Despite the unimaginable hype to carry, Denis Villeneuve crafted a monumental piece of blockbusterish art – an at-times-flawed ode to Herbert’s novel, and a proof of Quebecois director’s cinematic chutzpah.
A fitting preambule to this review – one that I’ve longed to write – would be a tirade against the COVID-19 times that led to the debut of Dune (2021) that took place simultaneously in cinemas and on HBO Max. For many reasons, this fact highlights the mark that the pandemic left on the transforming film industry. So, before I move on, let one thing be abundantly clear – there should be no other way to watch Dune (2021) than in cinema. At least once, you should experience this film on the big screen, or go loco with IMAX. Having this out of the way, let’s move on.
Dune, as those acquainted with Frank Herbert’s mind-bending novel know, is a term used to describe a sandy planet called Arrakis. Despite the harsh conditions – the sizzling heat, the desert lands and rocky canyons – Arrakis remains very close to the heart of the Emperor, for it is the source of spice, a glowing kind of dust used as fuel in the galaxy. Years ago the planet was leased to the grotesquely dark House Harkonnen, but now that the agreement has been revoked, the Emperor calls for the next powerful dynasty – House Atreides – to come to Arrakis and rule. A plethora of political intricacies follows the switch of Arrakis’ governors, all of which lead to an escalating conflict between the houses.
A few key players form the backbone of the plot of Dune (2021). Our nominal protagonist is Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a Vogue-model charmer of a son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Torn between the inevitable call for power and the oracular dreams that sketch an unlikely alliance with the indigenous Arrakis tribes called Fremen, Paul’s the beaten-path chosen one type of character. If taken on by someone less charismatic, this would’ve been a suffocatingly bland figure to watch, much in the vibe of Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002).
Thankfully, Chalamet handles the material with singular focus. The dark-haired actor carries the internalized performance of a man of few words, much in the league of his captivating portrayal of King Henry in David Michod’s The King (2019). The two are much alike – a blue-blood whose rebellious nature doesn’t fit the fate that’s been already in store for him.
Although Timothée Chalamet shines, the true show-stealer is Rebecca Ferguson. Following a career of good performances in sadly average films, Ferguson puts on an entrancing spectacle. Lady Jessica shoves her true powers (she’s part of a mysterious sisterhood that supposedly runs the intergalactic puppet show) and keeps it hidden under a cloak of “a good, supporting wife” routine. In splits of a second, Ferguson switches gears between moments of pure terror, raw fear and anger, and every single emotion’s true and heartfelt. Ferguson also fine-tunes Chalamet’s role – the two make wonders on the screen, oozing an aura of a daughter-son relationship that’s soulful, yet visceral.
Truth be told, solid acting has always been Villeneuve’s trademark. The Canadian director steered the wheels of two powerhouse performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman in Prisoners (2013), and the spiritual journey of Amy Adams in Arrival (2016). While Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet usurp as much screen time as possible, there are supporting roles that beg for more attention, and eventually get lost in the scale of this undertaking. That is the fate of Josh Brolin, Duke Leto’s right-hand whose role feels disappointingly minute given the credit it goes to. Examples of that pattern pile up as the story progresses, leaving the likes of David Dastmalchian, and Dave Bautista present a few lines of dialogue; being a glare you barely manage to register.
There are, however, more unexpected standouts too. Jason Momoa’s take on Duncan Idaho, the loyal companion of Paul, has its genuine moments of bliss. I was overjoyed with the performance of Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Kynes as well. As a character introduced as impartial to the growing tensions between the Harkonnens and the Atreides, Duncan-Brewster combines desert-tested toughness with a pleasant kind of warmth that makes her character glow. Last, but not least, there’s a brilliant scene starring Javier Bardem, who – like in his good ol’ days when the actor played in No Country For Old Men (2007) – connects to his inner weirdness to steal his character introduction scene.
Having all of those people as part of the plot, Denis Villeneuve’s brazen narrative machinery still works at top speed. Spanning over nearly three hours, Dune (2021) packs a huge chunk of Herbert’s novel. Nevertheless, the writing team omits some of the behind-the-scenes scheming of the Harkonnens, making their appearances brief and lacking in substance. Frankly, one can only treat Stellan Skarsgård’s turn as Baron Harkonnen as a prelude to what’s about to come in the second part of Dune.
Adamant fans of Dune might also feel that Dune (2021) settles for a grand set-up. Indeed, it’s a gargantuan, complex introduction to the “actual thing”. For a story that explores many grand themes – from eco-political issues of planet demolition to troublesome relations between the indigenous people of Arrakis and their rulers – Villeneuve doesn’t stick around for long to explore one of these topics profoundly. While there’s certainly no chaos in the proceedings, or character development, the writers seem to struggle excavating the true craftsmanship of Herbert in the fields of symbolism and religious analogies. These are, for the most part, lost in the sands of Arrakis for now.
Yet the true one drawback of Dune (2021) remains the absence of Johann Johannsson – the deceased long-time collaborator of Denis Villeneuve – which echoes in every minute of Hans Zimmer’s muddle of a score. It becomes abundantly clear how huge was Johannsson’s impact on Sicario (2015) or Arrival (2016), and what wonders he could conjure up with Dune (2021). For all the respect I also have for the great Hans Zimmer, his music strikes me as the most incoherent, soulless and misplaced part of the film. The crescendos explode in your ears, and with the high-decibels power wave of IMAX, the score blends with the rest of sound design into a pulp that has no traces of the intimacy that Villeneuve’s film abounds in. FOr what it’s worth, I’d much prefer the ambience composed as Dune Sketchbook, which has the flavor I expected.
Where the film almost never ceases to amaze is the visual panache of Dune (2021). Silverback DP Greig Fraser (Vice (2018), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)) sweeps the endless sands of Arrakis and finds beautiful light-and-shadow contrasts in the stark interior designs. The scale of Dune (2021) surpasses Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and can compete with the likes of Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy and Star Wars saga.
Over the years, Denis Villeneuve never lowered the bar for himself, nor did he shy away from exploring new genres, from drama and thrillers to sci-fi flicks. His Dune (2021) is a monument designed by a visionary, who clearly loves Frank Herbert’s opus magnum. There’s passion here, and ambition that reaches for the sky. So, in spite of all of its shortcomings, I can safely conclude that Dune (2021) was worth all the wait. And I can’t wait to see it again.