Dune: NYFF 2021 Review

Year: 2021

Runtime: 155 minutes

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writers: Jon Spaihts (screenplay), Denis Villeneuve (screenplay), Eric Roth (screenplay)

Actors: Timothee Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Jason Mamoa, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista

By Tom Moore

Caution: Mild Spoilers

Denis Villeneuve’s filmmaking journey has embodied every filmmaker’s dream. To go from making small French films and slowly gaining acclaim with indie hits like “Prisoners” (2013) and “Sicario”(2015) to becoming an awards favorite with “Arrival”(2016) would be impressive enough. However, his efforts on “Blade Runner: 2049” (2017) were a pretty noteworthy accomplishment because of what it meant for him as a filmmaker.

There’s no denying that Villeneuve basically getting free reign in creating a sequel to a cult classic with his vision and ambition says a lot about how he’s seen in the industry. He’s clearly well respected for the vision and scope he brings to a cinematic experience and it’s even clearer that he’s garnered high respect with how he’s been allowed to remake another cult-classic – “Dune” (2021).

Although Villeneuve’s adaptation is focusing more on adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel of the same name, specifically the first half of it, rather than outwardly remaking David Lynch’s 1984 film, it tells the same story. The film takes viewers to a distant future where a spice known as mélange becomes the most valuable resource in the universe because it extends human life and can be primarily found on a planet known as Arrakis, a desolate desert planet with extreme heat and quarter-mile sized giant sandworms. Recently accepting the stewardship of Arrakis, Duke Leto (Oscar Issac), leader of the House Atreides, brings his entire army and family, including concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothee Chalamet), to Arrakis in the hopes of gaining the spice and trust of the planet’s native inhabitants, The Fremen. However, as Paul arrives on Arrakis, he begins to have visions of destruction, betrayal, and bloodshed centered around a Fremen girl named Chani (Zendaya) that slowly begins to come true as Paul must achieve his destiny in a war between the Fremen and the dreaded House Harkonnen.

Even in the hands of a legendary filmmaker like Lynch, “Dune” (1984) was just ahead of its time and is the perfect kind of film to be remade since the quality of visual effects has massively improved and there are new actors and visionaries like Villeneuve that can make the large-scale scope and ambition of Herbert’s novel come to life. Villeneuve proves this in spades with how he’s made his depiction of Herbert’s world a visual masterpiece. Arrakis’ endless desert is absolutely hypnotizing and it’s so massive in size that it really feels like children playing in a gigantic sandbox with some mountainous sandworms squirming around, of course.

The designs of the ships and architecture are incredibly eye-catching, and the dragonfly design for the Artreides’ ships on Arrakis are fascinating to watch in action. The way he makes each different faction stand out through their distinctive costumes helps distinguish class and how they adapt to their environments. While those of House Atreides and Harkonnen have a darker regal look, the Fremen’s desert wear makes them more capable of surviving in the harsh Arrakis conditions. Villeneuve makes his version of “Dune” truly feel massive in every aspect with armies that fill the frames and the towering architecture. Even when characters are just talking in a room or walking through an empty hall, the rooms have this immense space to them that just adds to the visual ambition and epic nature of Villeneuve’s “Dune”. Mix it with another masterful score from Hans Zimmer and “Dune” embodies the kind of visual and atmospheric experience that deserves to be seen in theaters to really encapsulate everything it has to offer.

The performances match Villeneuve’s artistic vision with Chalamet, Isaac, and Ferguson being the clear standouts. Chalamet makes Paul’s slight fear and curiosity about his visions and future purpose very compelling with the intensity he brings, and he proves that he can have a big screen presence and be a strong lead outside of small, more personal indie flicks. Isaac evokes the stoic presence of Leto throughout and acts as a leader trying to make peace, but soon realizes that a betrayal is looming. Ferguson’s performance leaves the biggest impression though as the emotional balancing act she does as Lady Jessica is very intriguing to watch as she tries to remain loyal to the Bene Gesserit while also maintaining her duties as a mother. There’s definitely still a lot to unpack with her character, especially after the massive betrayal and damage done, but Ferguson does a good job creating this sense of mystery and intrigue around her character. Really, all the performances match Villeneuve’s ambition and world he’s created, and everyone has great chemistry.

There’s no doubt that Villeneuve’s artistic vision is on full blast here making “Dune” a true cinematic event, but “Dune” ends up being an underwhelming epic because it only contains half of the story. Yeah, the idea of “Dune” being split into a two-part event was pretty much known from the start, but this first part suffers greatly from teasing big story beats and characters we won’t see until whenever, if, this second part gets made. This first part sort of acts as a depiction of the betrayal and destruction that leads to Paul becoming a revolutionary figure that will fight against House Harkonnen. Now, this basically means that this first part is just a lot of set up for the bigger and more gripping parts of the story that are going to be in the second part.

Thus, Villeneuve tries to shove so much introductory lore into this first part that some of it doesn’t really stick and it would’ve been better if he found more unique ways to delve into lore than just a lot of conversating. “Dune’s” bloated runtime can be felt throughout as it’s a film that tends to cut its action short or cuts away from it completely and simply tell its story through dialogue that becomes stale over time. It was actually shocking to see the importance of the military presence be built up visually and through Paul’s training only to have the big battles not really be shown all that much. Even the moment of Paul finally fighting at the end feels all too quick and the only really stunning fight sequence that comes is from Duncan Idaho’s (Jason Mamoa) final stand – which was definitely epic and heartbreaking. For most of “Dune”, you’re just stuck trying to piece its story together with the overload of information you’re dealt, and it makes the film a mentally taxing, almost boring watch.

Most of the characters also end up being super thin because they’re either going to be further explored in the second movie or bite the dust so quick that you barely get to know them. There’s nothing more frustrating or underwhelming than seeing story threads or interesting characters that have interesting potential and then basically being told, “oh, you thought that was cool? Well, you’ll have to wait till next time.” Factions like the Harkonnen and the Fremen aren’t delved into enough here to make them standout past their revolutionary or evil power-hungry trappings. A lot of familiar faces feel wasted or falsely advertised since they barely get the chance to make a real impression and aren’t given memorable sendoffs. Also, if you were looking forward to seeing Zendaya in a large role, prepare to be vastly underwhelmed.

Even the main story as a whole doesn’t really land an impact. Outside of Paul’s arc to realizing his Destiny and Momoa’s fun performance as Idaho, none of the characters leave a worthwhile impression. There are parts of Lady’s Jessica’s mysterious background that are cool, but you are kind of left hanging because it gets rolled over to the second part. Look, Villeneuve’s obviously working with a lot of material here and trying to tell a massive epic like this in one sitting can be tough, so it makes sense to make this in two parts. However, this first part just feels empty with certain story points and characters, and you can’t really bank that all these things are going to be solved in the next film. In its current state, “Dune” just feels like half of a movie and doesn’t do enough to create worthwhile investment in a part two.

There’s no doubt that Villeneuve will be rightfully praised for “Dune’s” visual mastery that feels like the kind of cinematic experience that audiences deserve coming out the pandemic, but it’s a shame that its partial story and weak characters can’t always measure up.

3 stars

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