Dennis Villenueve’s Dune is a slow, complicated, visually stunning political, religious and sci fi slow burn with little payoff and a high amount of investment. If you’re a fan of instant gratification, you may not enjoy the movie. If you can handle high concept sci fi, politics, prophecy, and two and a half hours of stage setting and world building, then you’re going to LOVE this movie.
Timothee Chalamet is a gorgeous individual, and his signature ‘I’m so poignant’ look fits so well into his character, Paul. He plays a royal heir to an intergalactic duchy, trying his best to shrug his birthright as a ruler and leader. He has a beautiful, refreshingly healthy relationship with his father, played by the ever beautiful Oscar Isaac. His mother, played by Rebecca Ferguson, headlines the film as the mystical mentor, capable of superpowers and a range of emotion, all of it being traditionally sad and/or crying.
Power and Religion
Dune involves incredible CGI, intergalactic politics, mystical prophecy, and an insane amount of swirly, twinkly slow motion. Dune is more like The Green Knight than Star Wars. It’s more Arrival than Guardians of the Galaxy. It explores themes of capitalism, imperialism, cultural domination and religious fanaticism. It’s an intelligent, well rounded film that does as much justice as possible to its source material, a novel which (I am sure) is wrought with details and complexity.
Mystical, religious powers are hard to enforce in a believable manner in movies, but Dune has the luxury of being one of those elevated movies backed by a ton of work put into developing said powers. For example, in Star Wars, the Force is developed and explained by Obi Wan in A New Hope, and it’s executed as part of the climax, cementing this worldbuilding element as important as the laser swords and space battles for the rest of the entirety of the media. Dune allows even more time and visual space to explore and explain this part of the film world, in a way that lends itself to a natural part of the story. Once explained, this magic power can be executed at will, as often as needed.
The script is poetic, and probably derives much of its airiness from the original novel. I appreciate it in the same way I appreciated the cultural nuances of the dialogue in Mad Max: Fury Road, but unfortunately, Hans Zimmer’s grand and reverberating soundtrack takes a grander stage, and oftentimes the whispers, mumbles and character building dialogue is muffled under the enveloping nature of the soundtrack. Too often even I, a native English speaker, couldn’t understand a set of dialogue or exposition. Though I don’t think I missed anything more than establishing details, I think I’ll learn more about the film if I watch the movie with subtitles later on. It’s not a detriment, but it is a distraction.
Hans Zimmer’s best atmosphere-building score
Speaking of which, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, again, performs far better in the film than it does alone. I almost wish I hadn’t been obsessed with Zimmer’s three-part release of the music, because I think I would have experienced the movie far differently if I’d gone in audially cold. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the music in the movie, as I reveled in anticipating what was to come next. Unlike my experience with No Time to Die, the score titles didn’t spoil anything, and I was allowed to enjoy the majesty of what seems to be Zimmer’s best effort since his collaborations with Christopher Nolan. Rumor has it that he skipped out on Nolan’s Tenet to work on Dune, but that gave us Ludwig Göransson’s incredible soundtrack, so I’m not really complaining.
Zimmer’s Dune soundtrack is less cinematic and more environmental than anything, so be prepared. It fills the world with a richness and character unlike soundtracks in very many other films, sci-fi and action films included. I think Villenueve understands the importance of a powerful score to accompany his visuals, as he’s always chosen superb maestros to score his works. Starting at Sicario and Arrival, which featured the late, great, Jóhann Jóhannsson, to Blade Runner 2049, also scored by Zimmer, all of Villenueve’s films are accompanied by an incredibly powerful musical support.
Ends and Agains
The visuals are stunning. They’re slick, stark and dynamic, making incredible use of lighting and perspective to deliver scale and grandeur unseen. Recalling A New Hope’s opening sequence, using visual scale to tell a story combined with Blur Studio-level graphics is an incredible feat. Villenueve is able to deliver sci-fi at the level of Annihilation, Ex Machina, or his previous work, Arrival. Dune is absolutely incredible to experience and cannot- I repeat, cannot– be missed in theaters.
Bewarned, however. The film is mostly Villenueve building and fitting story elements into place, like a puzzle being built or a set being constructed. The true payoff of the film is yet to come, and this is owing to the fact that this release of Dune is part 1 of 2, based on a single novel. As such, the climax and finale of this particular film will not deliver a catharsis or a conclusion to scale with the rest of the film. Villenueve is yet to deliver the true climax of Paul’s story and the climax to this fantastic sci-fi movie. As such, Dune is a masterstroke in storytelling. I do not know which plots were abandoned from the novel, and I suspect many plots were neglected, and many characters remained underdeveloped.
In terms of traditional movie storytelling and character building, none of the characters have truly, satisfyingly, been developed, foiled or arched. This is simply a consequence of adapting the first-ish half of a high-concept, incredibly comlicated sci-fi story. Do not be dissuaded from the film simply because you are left unsatisfied, as I can guarantee you, the second film will deliver a more-than satisfactory conclusion to this saga.
A Word to the Wise and Weary
Dune is a cinematic experience that will not be done justice to itself or to you if you watch it anywhere but in a theater at least once. This is not an endorsement to engage in unsafe activities, but rather a warning. If you choose to only watch Dune on a screen smaller than the theater, you will be depriving yourself of much of the experience that has been carefully crafted.
However, Dune also requires a buy in. It requires that you buy in to the mystical witches, the aliens in pods, the floating antagonists, the poetry in the dialogue, the establishment of politics. You must realize that this film will require you to sit there and nod, agreeing to let the film do what it must do, to be what it must be. This is not a film that will deliver immediate entertainment value, nor will everyone agree to call the final portion of the movie to be a climax in any capacity of the word. You must buy in to this film. Relinquish control and allow the sand and the wind to blow and twirl, taking you on a journey, a destination unknown.
Dennis Villenueve’s next great work is available on HBO, but I highly suggest you watch it in theaters as long as you’re vaccinated (readers have asked me to include this vaccine disclaimer, and I support it entirely).