The beginning for cinema in the 2020s seemed rather bleak in hindsight. Coming off the blockbuster high of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame”, the pandemic had set the industry back by at least a year. Leaving some of the biggest films of this new era trapped in an endless loop of delays. Then, there was the question of what would be fate of the cinematic viewing experience. With streaming becoming, for a time, a necessity for studio survival, many considered whether going back to theaters was worth the risk. Especially once you take into account services like Disney Hotstar and HBO Max eventually making these bid-budget film releases available.
As much as auteurs like Martin Scorcese and Christopher Nolan tout the cinematic experience as the irreplaceable sacred, could there ever be a truly compelling reason to return to theaters? We dare say that Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” just might be one. In our minds, it is the first film of the decade that truly demands your pilgrimage back to theater halls. Something spectacularly unique and revitalizing reminiscent. We’re back baby!
Frank Herbert’s “Dune” novels dating back to 1965 can be seen as the great progenitor of modern space fantasies and science fiction films. From the iconic spheres of “Star Wars” to the lesser known “Warhammer: 40,000” fanbase, “Dune” has significantly shaped the landscape of the genre. Simply put, there would be no “Star Wars” without “Dune”.
To call the challenge of adapting Herbert’s books a Herculean task would be an understatement. It is near impossible due to the fact that there’s so much damn ground to cover. There’s the political machinations of vying royal houses. There’s the insanely meticulous worldbuilding and lore behind Arrakis and beyond. Then, there’s the coming-of-age story of an exiled teenage lord reckoning with the psychological and emotional burden of messiah-hood.
How could Villeneuve and company not buckle under the pressure? The answer is the guiding adage of show, don’t tell. Villeneuve is not ignorant to the issues of making all this bite-sized and accessible to audiences, and in a sense he gives up on it. He doesn’t try all at once to make you understand the gravity of the entire situation. No, instead he – alongside cinematographer Greig Fraser and composer Hans Zimmer – draws you in through beauty.
You won’t always get everything at first glance but as you marvel at the breathtaking shots of people, places and events, you begin to be enthralled. Does it at times become a little too heavy to digest all the esoteric lore in the world? Yes, but it makes you want to go back into it, to read up and explore. A good film should always leave you satisfied and yet hungry for more.
At the heart of the web of subplots, though, is a rather familiar narrative. One that’s been told since time in memorium. The struggles of a young person having greatness thrust upon them, the story of the chosen one. Unlike Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen, Paul meets the expectations in a far more relatable way. He doesn’t immediately get into the reluctant hero archetype a’la Jon Snow. He mulls over it, entertains the fantasy until he must encounter all the horrific implications that come with it. Alongside the promise of greatness is a frightening fatalism that follows it.
Now, there are some criticisms levelled against the film stating that the ending comes too abruptly. Just as we see Paul finally coming to terms with his destiny, it just ends. While we understand the sentiment, we didn’t find it an issue at all. Villeneuve wholly plans on completing Paul’s journeys through future films…if certain conditions are met. There’s a lot of messy details regarding that subject so we’ll get to that in another time.
Speaking of production, the sound and visuals of “Dune” are utterly spectacular. Fraser’s eye for contrast, framing and scale rivals that of Roger Deacon’s talent. Villeneuve has stunned us in the past with the dirty, grimmy neon-soaked glow of “Blade Runner 2049”. Set to ominous synths and sonic noodlings, its score creates a foreboding sense of dread and mystery. Here, he invokes a rather interesting visual and auditory motif: the religious.
Right as you enter into the story, you’re greeted with the beauteous rise of the Arrakis sun before being met with the stark murky brutality of the film’s villains. Then, you’re transported into the grey and muted seas and skies of Caladan, the original home ot House Atreides. Life, colour and adventure reenters into the young Paul’s world as he’s greeted with the harsh desert lands of Dune. All the while, Hans Zimmer’s orchestra rises in the background with hushed vocals like secret whispers of prophecies. Then in tracks like “Paul’s Dream”, you’re greeted with soaring operatic cries, like a preacher calling out in the desert. It’s downright transcendental.
Actor Timothee Chalamet was nothing short of brilliant. In films like “Beautiful Boy” and Netflix’s “The King”, we saw flashes of his potential. Beneath his boyish charms and humours, there is a growing emotional range and depth. Here in “Dune”, we get to see Chalamet carry a major leading role in a franchise, and he does not disappoint. He perfectly captures all the angst and ennui of a young man forced to grapple with powers greater than himself. Unsure at first then angry before coming into his own.
He is of course surrounded by a phenomenal cast of actors with Rebecca Ferguson as his loving and authoritative mother, Jessica and Oscar Isaac as the compassionate Duke Leto pushed against a corner. Actor Jason Mamoa and Josh Brolin essentially play themselves and that’s alright. The villains Rabban Harkonnen and Vladmir Harkonnen played by Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgard didn’t quite leave us much of an impression. While visually distinctive and intimidating in presence, we haven’t quite gotten to know them. Beyond a few lines here and there. No doubt, we’ll see them play a major larger role in the films to come.
Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” is a powerful assertion of the necessity of the cinematic experience. Though challenging at times, it rewards faithful followers with a story that manages to blend the highly fantastical with the painfully relatable. If this is a foretaste of what’s to come, then we can’t wait to see what Villeneuve and company have in store. We implore to go out and watch it today on the big screen today while you still can! If you’ve got questions about the film’s ending and future instalments of the franchise, you can check out our explainer as well.
So what did you think of Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune”? Did you love it? Did you hate it? Let us know with a reaction down below!
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Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” is a powerful assertion of the necessity of the cinematic experience. Though challenging at times, it rewards faithful followers with a story that manages to blend the highly fantastical with the painfully relatable. If this is a foretaste of what’s to come, then we can’t wait to see what Villeneuve and company have in store.
- "Dune" Review