In the distant future space travel is only possible due to a substance called melange (nicknamed spice). The only planet where this precious material can be resourced is a desert world named Arrakis. The galactic imperium is divided into several great houses under the Emperor but the real power lies with those who control Arrakis. Despite ruling for decades, House Harkonnen are ordered to leave Arrakis and it is gifted to the head of House Atreides, Duke Leto [Isaac]. Upon arrival the Duke’s son, Paul [Chalamet], is desperate to learn about the new planet and its nomadic people but it quickly becomes apparent that the gifting of Arrakis to House Atreides is in fact a betrayal.
Reviewing Dune, much like filming it, hinges surprisingly heavily on your knowledge of the1965 novel that it’s based on. For me, Dune didn’t take full root for years. I absorbed the books but didn’t fully appreciate them until I was older. It was only looking back on my life that I appreciated how much this weird tome stuck with me. For others, they are immediately captivated and transported to a deep and dangerous landscape of political machinations, religious positioning and familial expectations. I only bring this up to highlight it is very difficult to separate my bias for the franchise but also more importantly the ease with which I can fill in the gaps in the film’s narrative and know what is to come.
Owing to the book being so rich, vast, unwieldy and unapologetically weird many have proclaimed it unfilmable. But as the history of cinema has shown, something is only unfilmable until it isn’t. What Villeneuve and his team have crafted is a feat of immeasurable scope and beauty and the purest of unabashed science fiction. Essays could (and no doubt will) be written about the audio/visual spectacle. The production design is breathtaking with its gargantuan sets, seamless CGI, glorious aesthetic, striking cinematography and sumptuous lived-in detail with every facet of life on the various planets. Superbly directed, it is clearly a labour of love from a fan of the source material.
Complimenting and elevating the lavish visuals is the commanding sound design. It seems the mission statement going into this project is the word “alien.” Everything about how the worlds hum and breathe with life must feel alien to the audience. It’s not enough that a personal body shield being raised or dragonfly-looking helicopter craft taking off sound different, everything has to astonish with its uniqueness. Nowhere is that clearer than Hans Zimmer’s score. The central theme is simple yet haunting and it’s apparent that instruments are being played/distorted/presented in a way they never have been and were never intended to, giving us a truly otherworldly experience. Although.. the bagpipes. Still not sure about that. Not the biggest fan.
It also has to be said that this film is stacked. The actors on show here, even if only for a scene or two, are arresting. The only way I could bisect them is between those with the weight and solemnity of their station on their shoulders and those with the raw emotional presence that humanises this political chess game. Yet all are united by the weary and indeed wary look of a thousand years of history behind their eyes. In truth, while many may have had initial concerns about certain casting choices, there isn’t a single weak link and everyone is utilised to perfection.. so far. And therein lies the problem.
Dune is a masterclass in mature, grandiose filmmaking but the pace will not be for everyone. This largely stems from Villeneuve’s slavish devotion to the book. It’s clear he doesn’t want to compromise the story to appease an audience but in doing so robs Dune of some of the pending greatness that we know is coming. Sure, we get glimpses of possible futures but none of them land in a way that highlights the urgency to follow this story to its conclusion. And despite being two and a half hours, it still feels like so much was left on the cutting room floor and I can easily imagine a 4 hour workprint exists somewhere.
Crucial to the enjoyment of Dune, one must go in expecting a part one. I appreciate that the film’s opening titles state PART ONE but this should be on all the marketing and reviewing this feature as a standalone is frankly detrimental. The entire story is a first act and segments of a second, Paul never really squares off with a single major villain and the true mastermind puppeteers are never truly revealed. In that way it is a film of disappointing plot threads blowing in the wind. But what truly concerns me is Warner Bros and Legendary’s outward attitude to this film. It’s evident that this is a thoroughly supported project with its impressive and intense marketing campaign to the sheer creative licence afforded to its director. But this hasn’t been filmed as one project, the script for Part Two has only just sort of been finalised and at time of writing a sequel hasn’t been green-lit.
The 2010s were rife with adaptations of final instalments of franchises being split in two: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and Part 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2, etc all setting up a wealth of detailed narrative components that we had to wait a year for until the pay off. This often meant that the first part felt flat and a little dry, while the second part was all rollercoaster and a handful of plot elements slipped by if you hadn’t caught up by rewatching Part 1 the day before. But the difference was that they were filmed back-to-back. The only other property I can think of in recent years that has put out an adaptation of the first half of a novel with a “we’ll wait and see how this one is received” attitude before giving the go-ahead for a sequel is It (later retitled It: Chapter One). The exact same issues that plagued these other examples are present here but to an arguably more extreme degree as this film doesn’t exactly work as half a story and if this is all we get, it tarnishes the legacy of what was attempted here. But I am optimistic. I have hope that the studio went into this with the understanding of what they were getting into and no matter how this performs fiscally or on WB’s streaming platform, the cast and crew will be given the chance to finish what they have started.
What’s on display here is legitimate cinema; an ambitious, colossal, sprawling saga of legacy, smoke, sand and visions – or at least the opening to such a saga. This film won’t be for everyone but the film not only knows that, it makes no attempt to concede for that middle-ground. It’s here to tell one type of story, one that some have dubbed impractical and ostracising but I’m not entirely sure you could really do it any other way.
22 October 2021
The Scene To Look Out For:
I mentioned the marketing campaign has been hard at work to promote this film and as much as that is a benefit, it comes at a cost. It’s quite cliche to say all the best parts of the film were in the trailer but Dune definitely has that issue. Granted, the conversations, the plotting and sneering across the political landscape is what makes this film but so many of the visual spectacle has been offered up on the altar of marketing to get people to watch it. I understand it but it’s a shame because it means there are so few things for me to highlight that could blow your mind which aren’t already readily available in trailers, TV spots and promo featurettes. Having said all that, for so many, the Gom Jabbar scene is a ghastly and terrifying trial by fire for Paul and the film conveys that anxiety inducing ambience with ease.
As stated before, there isn’t a single member of the cast that falls behind; no matter how long or short the part, their presence is felt. If I had to choose, however, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica is glorious. The Bene Gesserit are mysterious and terrifying and its evident that Jessica both fears and respects the order. More than that, she sees the wheels turning where others don’t and carries a wealth of secrets and suppressed emotions to manoeuvre successfully through this dangerous world. Always present, always listening, always fighting for her son – wonderful stuff.
“When is a gift not a gift?”
In A Few Words:
“A challenging visionary work whose only real fault is its current uncertain future but when this passes all that will remain is a stellar cinematic achievement”