Around the one-hour mark in an unspecified future, in the endless desert of Dune, the giant predator sandworm, attracted by vibrations, shoots out from underneath the desert and swallows the spice mining machinery, crawler, in sight. It is the first time there is any absolute sense of danger in the film. It is also the first time Paul (Timothee Chalamet) heir to the Atreides throne, under the influence of spice, has a clear vision about the future. If the reader has absolutely no idea what’s happening in the review up until this point, such a reader is forgiven. Dune (2021) is a movie so dense we spend the first thirty minutes in exposition. A patient unraveling of the situation, introduction to characters, and a cautious dive into the inevitable chaos that the movie promises, all against the backdrop of gorgeous and voluminous sets.
Based on Frank Herbert’s novels, Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) must lead his family in dangerous times as the Emperor sends them to the precarious world of the Fremen, nomadic desert dwellers, to oversee the production of spice. It is a scheme that is to make the family vulnerable to the attack of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), the ruler of House Harkonnen, an enemy House desperate for the much coveted spice. Spice gives the futuristic humans their abilities, powers their machines and technologies, and is the single most coveted substance in the Dune universe. Whoever controls it, controls the empire. Amidst this power tussle is Paul, a precocious young man with a great responsibility thrust upon him by destiny. Although born into affluence, he is to liberate the subjugated desert dwellers of Fremen. House Atreides collapses, Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), are thrown into the unkind desert to the mercy of both the sandstorms and the sandworms. They find the Fremen, and in the final scene, Paul pledges allegiance to them, his destiny finally about to begin. Of course there is a sequel.
In 2017, Denis Villeneuve made a film with a scope as expansive as Dune’s when he made Blade Runner 2049. In 2016, he adapted Ted Chiang’s excellent sci-fi short story, “Arrival”. He has a remarkable track record with futuristic materials, and whatever brilliance we find in Dune has long been afoot. Yet, there is praise to be delivered anew. Dune is an excellent work. The slow, cautious pacing it opens with is absolutely necessary or the overwhelming details of the new world would be lost to the viewer. It is the same thing he did with Blade Runner 2049. Movies of expansive scope, like Dune, like the Wachowski Sisters’ Cloud Atlas, demand absolute patience, and only a master can tell such stories adequately. Denis Villeneuve has proven himself a master repeatedly.
He is aided by some of the best hands in Hollywood. In 2017, he had the brilliant Roger Deakins as cinematographer to create a world that felt visually hollow yet alive with colours, a difficult contradiction to capture. And now he had Greig Fraser (who’s helming Matt Reeves’ 2022 Batman film) for Dune. The film looks like an echo with its large set pieces that feel like if one stood therein and spoke, his voice would echo endlessly. To create this visual sense, the humans are placed as tiny specks against humongous backdrops suggesting an expanse of unreachable space. A feeling of endlessness in a world with a flying Baron as villain and sandworms that swallow machineries. Underneath the visual echo is Hans Zimmer (Interstellar, Inception) with his haunting score for the film. With an array of talents, championed by Timothee Chalamet and Jessica Ferguson, it isn’t hard to see why Dune succeeds.
And way past two hours into the film, Paul and Chani (Zendaya), his destined love interest from his visions, finally meet. But the stakes are far higher than the first time we feel a great danger about to befall Paul. He is to fight to the death for his life and his mother’s. It will be the first time he will murder a man. There is no questioning whether he will win or not. He has a destiny to fulfil, he has only just met his love interest, and the film is about to end, a sequel, at this point, is inevitable. We know Paul isn’t in danger. Perhaps this is the only flaw to be found here. There is an unchecked sense of invincibility around Paul, even Chalamet’s suave and charisma show that; a cockiness in the face of destiny, as he uses The Voice, fights like the wind, and takes charge of the situation with the coldness of a surgeon. If we will find anything close to a flaw in the film, that is it. But it is to great delight, or to Denis Villeneuve’s great filmmaking ability, that we do not notice it until the last scene, or long after, or never.
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- Great sets. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. It is the way the scenes open carefully, from small to large then to unbelievable.
- Jason Momoa does excellently as a veteran warrior. A throwback to his Dothraki days as Khal Drogo.
- A second part, set to premiere in 2023, has been announced.
Dune is currently in cinemas and available on HBO Max for 30 days.