Dir. Denis Villeneuve; Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Zendaya
[4 out of 4 stars]
The moment I knew I trusted Denis Villeneuve, in the way you find a filmmaker whose cinematic vision you know will always move you, was watching a late afternoon matinee of Arrival (2016) outside Burlington, Vermont. It was just before Christmas, and my college roommate Andrew and I made the 45-minute trek from Middlebury to Burlington specifically to see the movie. Arrival floored me. In the months after, I tore through everything of Villeneuve’s I could get my hands on and found again and again that the way he captured images was electric. Therefore, it was thrilling to hear he would direct Dune (2021), an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, long considered confounding to filmmakers. Expectations can be lethal for a project of Dune’s magnitude, but having waited to see it until I could make it to a less-crowded IMAX theater, I can now say Villeneuve has moved me once again.
Dune is a science-fiction epic of massive order, concerned with aristocratic family houses serving under the emperor and his Imperium. We focus on House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and their son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet). The emperor commands Leto to take control of the planet Arrakis, a severe desert world nonetheless lusted after for its stores of spice, a hallucinogenic substance also used to help navigate interstellar travel. House Atreides arrives on Arrakis faced with the deadly political machinations of House Harkonnen and its monstrous Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skargård), the previous colonial power on the planet, as well as the creeping suspicion that the Imperium seeks to destroy House Atreides, seeing its place as the leader among peers a threat to the imperial power. Amidst this intrigue, Paul also faces the knowledge that an order of witches called the Bene Gesserit, of which his mother is a member, believes he may be a chosen one meant to reorder the power structure of the Imperium, stemming in large part from a series of dreams he has featuring a mysterious woman (Zendaya) on Arrakis.
As you have likely gathered, Dune’s narrative is incredibly dense. Handled poorly, you could end up with a film that functions solely as an exposition machine, dumping information right and left without leaving any room for character stakes or narrative bends. One of the first miracles of this adaptation is that the script, co-authored by Villeneuve with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, is remarkably light on its feet for an almost three-hour runtime. The script does not skimp on worldbuilding and mythos but weaves it into the dynamics between the various Atreides family members, their foes, and their allies, and foregrounds the impacts of these circumstances without ever veering into the realm of expensive encyclopedia. We rapidly understand the deadly political stakes, and yet the pacing is meditative, never trying to rush along. The result is a sweeping narrative peppered with wonderfully small moments, like Paul’s relationship with the soldier and armorer Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa). Paul is burdened with the dual expectations of royal bloodline and prophecy, but his moments with Idaho are sheer joy: bear hugs, smiles, and jokes about Paul’s lack of muscle mass. The oscillation between that intimacy and the immense action sequences is masterfully balanced, giving Dune an equal footing of intimacy and spectacle.
And my, what wonder there is to be found in the spectacle! Even in his smaller projects like Incendies (2010) or Enemy (2013), Villeneuve has produced astounding images and set pieces. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) let him blow this out into even broader proportions, but Dune provides his most spectacular palette yet. The browns and oranges of the barren Arrakis, the greyscale of the Harkonnen compounds, and the infinite expanse of dark space all supply evocative and atmospheric settings. Villeneuve is a master of matching expressionistic lighting to his scenes, and nowhere is this more astonishing than when the Harokonnen stage a nighttime assault on the Atreides compound. The indigo night is blistered with explosions as they attack, blooms of yellow and red fire bathing the night in violence. Villeneuve maneuvers between the macro scale of ships and battalions facing off and the micro of how Duncan, Leto, Jessica, and Paul confront the crisis. The worst-case scenario for a sequence like this is Game of Thrones’ “Battle of Winterfell”: shaky pacing, lighting so dark you cannot make anything out, and no clear rhythm between macro and micro stakes. In Villeneuve’s hands, a similar battle is thrilling and moving, the first of a handful of times the film brought me to tears simply by its beauty.
Apart from Villeneuve’s reputation, Dune was sold on its star power, and its cast is a majestic affair. In addition to everyone I’ve mentioned already, Dune also features Josh Brolin, Charlotte Rampling, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, and David Dastmalchian, among a whole host of lesser-known stars who are nonetheless exceptional. Dune is, in that way, the very definition of, as my mother often likes to say, “an all-star cast.” This fact also makes it hard to spotlight any performances because there are so damn many worthy ones. Nonetheless, my major takeaways from the film were these. While I have harbored trepidations about Chalamet as a leading man, his work as Paul dispelled those for me. He captures the quiet charisma of a growing leader with verve and is convincing in his action scenes. His best scenes, though, are with Momoa, who was one of my favorite parts of the whole work. The man’s charm is indefinable, a true movie star quality that all his DC projects have failed to fully capitalize on. He is a mountainous force in fights scenes and brings just enough comedy to lighten the grim story without derailing it.
At the risk of ending this piece by being that guy, I offer this advice: if you are able and feel safe doing so, watch Dune on the biggest screen you can find. It remains a remarkable piece of cinematic artistry no matter where you experience it, having now watched it both in IMAX and on my television at home, but there is something otherworldly about seeping into it when you are quite literally dwarfed by its vision. On the big screen, Dune is a reminder of why I fell in love with film to begin with: the best ones, the very best ones, can take you to another world.