Dune Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Zendaya
Dune Director: Denis Villeneuve
Dune Stars: 4/5
“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.“: A better quote couldn’t have been penned to summarise the cinematic spectacle that is Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious desert opera, Dune. Based on what is considered as an “unfilmable book,” Frank Herbert’s genre-defining 1965 novel of the same name, Villeneuve took up the herculean task of bringing the essence of Dune to life on the big screen. Before him, many have tried and failed spectacularly; notably, David Lynch’s cartoonish 1984 version.
This time around, Denis gambles by dividing the heavy novel into two movie adaptations with the first part focusing on the world-building aspect, something which would cater to both fans of the book as well as those who’ve never encountered Herbert’s classic work. This also means that a vast expanse of knowledge is spewed at the viewers through lesson classes of the different enigmatic planets, so starkly different from the other. In Dune, Timothée Chalamet plays the main protagonist, Paul Atreides, future heir of House Atreides, who is distinctively haunted by the destructive future in store for the entire galaxy. This is attributed to his mother, Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit acolyte, who in layman’s terms are witches with mind-controlling powers. Ironically, his father Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is called upon by the Emperor to take over Arrakis, off the hands of House Harkonnen. Arrakis is home for its tremendous production of glitter bomb-looking “spice,” with capabilities to bend space and time while being an exponential component for space travel.
Leto is well aware that he’s entering a death trap and hopes to make allies with the Fremen, the rebels amongst the “civilised class.” Let’s not forget the main character of Dune, the vast desert of unending possibilities, along with gigantic worms who could swallow you whole in a moment’s trudge. Given how Dune is divided into two chapters, with the second part still needing a confirmation, the first instalment may seem lacklustre to some because there isn’t a clear narrative and minimum character development.
There’s a lot of cluttered storytelling to unpack in Dune, yet at the same time, it doesn’t feel heavy. That’s because the real fun doesn’t start up until the concluding sequences which see Paul and Jessica succumbing to cataclysmic tragedy and finally encountering the fremens, in particular, Chani, who is the leading lady in Paul’s explosive dreams. Given the world-building aspect, the level of scope and precision bestowed upon the production design by Patrice Vermette is outstanding and needs to be seen in nothing but the biggest of screens possible. Arrakis’ depiction in particular is astonishingly astute like it has a mind and voice of its own. There’s something so distinctive yet familiar about Hans Zimmer’s dramatic score which infuses sound and silence in befitting fashion and is interlaced magnificently by Mac Ruth’s sound mixing.
Greig Fraser’s cinematography oscillates between wide expansion, crossing inter-galaxies and POVs focus, especially with Paul, which adds more characterisation into the young, troubled man burdened with the responsibility he’s not sure he can possess. Many would find an issue with Joe Walker’s minimalised editing but I believe, Dune’s perspective or end goal was meant to sow the seeds for a greater battle at stake.
As for the performances, Timothée continues to leave me astounded with his versatile acting range, at such a young age. Chalamet takes up the brunt of the narrative where he’s given more emotive expressions than dialogues and the actor delivers an awe-inspiring performance. Equally impressive was Rebecca as Jessica as she parallels worry for her son and Duke as well as masters her stance as a fear-free member of the deadly Bene Gesserit at a moment’s notice. Oscar as Leto gives us yet another masterful act with his final sequence leaving a lethal, lasting impression. While Paul and Jessica’s sequences are aplenty to leave you hooked, we feel cheated out of the minimal scenes between Paul and Leto, which showcase a healthier father-son relationship, free of daddy issues.
Josh Brolin and Dave Bautista as Gurney Halleck, House Atreides’ weapons master, and Glossu Rabban, Baron Harkonnen’s nephew, fit the billing just right while Stellan Skarsgård as House Harokonnen’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s plum disguise sometimes takes away the effect out of his pure caricaturish evilness. A welcome ‘witty’ surprise amidst the sandy dunes is Jason Momoa’s Han Solo-esque performance as Duncan Idaho, House Atreides’ swordmaster who brings in the necessary laughs amidst the drought vibes.
Another highlight is Charlotte Rampling as Gaius Helen Mohiam, a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother as well as the Emperor’s Truthsayer, who is able to leave an eerie feeling surrounding her sisterhood with just one thrilling sequence. What was a bit of a letdown was the minimal screen presence of Zendaya’s Chani, albeit, she will be playing a more prominent role in the second instalment with Paul the unlikely hero of this story. Javier Bardem as Stilgar, Sietch Taber’s (a Fremen tribe) leader feels like a misplaced character in the odd scheme of things.
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What makes Denis such an enigmatic filmmaker, whose previous credits include the brilliant Blade Runner 2049, is how he’s so introspective to the minutest of details and we witness that in Dune because he doesn’t compromise in painting a daunting picture of the future, with the subtle underlying of our present. Villeneuve, along with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth come the closest in bringing the magnanimity of Dune to life and this is inspite of the Star Wars and Game of Thrones of the world at your overused beck and call.
Dune, at the end of the day, was like a prologue for what’s to come. While there are plenty of conflicts intact, Dune lets the characters and otherworldly aspects reel you in and keep you curious for two hours and 36 minutes. It’s a painstakingly slow trudge up the sands but the hidden treasure we’re promised at the end makes it well worth a cinematic experience to have, hold and eventually let go for something more grandiose.