Dune (Review)

Let’s get this out of the way first: Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is actually Dune Part One. This is the first chapter in a story that is reliant on a conclusion, a fact that makes this film more difficult to independently evaluate. As a teaser for later Dune, this film is a huge success. I left the cinema ready to see the next (if it is ever made), excited to step back into this well realised world. As a film in its own right, Dune is less successful, though more successful than Lynch’s attempt. This all being said, it is still a hell of an experience. And, damnit, Denis is right: this is one for the cinema. To be fully immersed in the sights and sounds of Dune is an experience that paves over its shortcomings, as the splendour carries both you and the film along. In retrospect, you will have concerns and criticisms but, in the moment, Dune is really something.

One of Dune’s most impressive strengths is its world building. We are dropped into a fully realised science fiction universe, ripped from the legendary series of novels, and, though the film is exposition heavy, the exposition feels natural. Smart cyphers are found to let us learn things alongside characters and it never feels like people sit down and explain the world, and things they should already know, at each other. There are a lot of proper nouns here, and random words in other languages. The film uses them with abandon but intelligently so. A recurring structural trope is to insert a detail in an independently entertaining sequence so that when that detail is important later, you know what it is and you never feel like you were stopped for a lesson. Some of this is just smart visual storytelling: a practice duel at the start introduces you to how the armour reacts to killing blows as opposed to normal attacks; this information makes the later grand fight scenes not only readable but exciting. It allows them to have a level of brutality and satisfaction that is only usually achieved through a focus on violence. The knowing flashes of orange allow it to say restrained (grim violence would not fit the tone here) while still carrying impact.

It is very functional filmmaking, and world building, it doesn’t help emotional investment, character or themes, but it is necessary. What is most commendable about the Villeneuve Dune is that it makes it digestible, but still gives it a sense of wonder. We learn as we go and we learn in satisfying ways that still feel like there are parts of the universe that will always evade us. Mystery is preserved, some things don’t need explaining, but enough foreshadowing is done to make everything hit. This also results in it feeling relatively lean, a well paced adventure (not including the final sequences) that sings on screen. Though, a lot of this only compels because of aesthetic. This is a beautiful film. The art design and cinematography work in tandem to realise a stunning universe. To bask in Dune is a thrill. A key strength is how the aesthetic blunts some of the less accessible edges of the source: the narrative is sci-fi fantasy, in full operatic mode; the visuals are hard science fiction, satisfyingly industrial, dark and moody. This really helps the politicking here, which is the film’s key strength. The shadowy goings on of duelling houses are in concert with the look of the film, and the film is at its best when it focuses on this paranoia and superstition, when it is working on a diplomatic scale.

The other part of the film’s equation is less appealing. You have a very generic saviour arc, a random white dude is promised to be a saviour and he is set up to be the messiah for the indigenous population of a planet his family has been established as colonial ruler of. Whether the series ends up critiquing this or not is irrelevant at the moment, this film is two and a half hours of colonial power fantasy through the lens of science fiction. Timothée Chalamet is well cast as the hero, his awkward edges bringing an unreliability and suspicion to the role that is necessary. Yet, the narrative around him does not make good on this, yet. It is also just an arc that does not interest me at all, as opposed to the galactic diplomacy which is really engrossing. This is one of a few issues with representation, though. Admittedly, the cast is uniformly good (the first hour or so is a fun game of spotting the new famous face in every new scene), but some of the casting decisions feel ill-advised. The way one character is coded, and a betrayal arc that goes with it, plays too close to racist caricature, for example. We also have one needless scene where a character makes a sexualised threat; the uncomfortable coding of the Harkonnen clan as evil through the way they look, and the film’s Middle Eastern influence in both music and art design is not reflected enough in its casting. Though, it does a good job with using this iconography positively and respectfully. It also makes for a more refreshing aesthetic that pulls from a wider range of reference points that your usual science fiction universe.

Again, visually the film is a triumph, but aurally is where it really excels. The Hans Zimmer score feels much more fresh than a lot of his work, and is the perfect accompaniment to the film. It is an exciting suite of music that adds to scenes without ever dominating them. There are some rather perfect moments in this film of pure visual and aural spectacle that remind you of what cinema can offer. This kind of beautiful and giant thing is a thrill we haven’t had for a while, and one that cannot be equalled outside of the immersive locale of the theatre. At these points, the problems with Dune fade away and there is nothing but awe.

But, there are issues. The choice to adapt only part of the book is the right one, yes (as it has time to breathe on screen and the lore can be satisfying rather than rushed nonsense); however, the choice of ending point is not the best. As we know from the Lynch movie (I haven’t read the book), we have three nice clean arcs to the narrative. This film adapts the first arc, bringing the film to a really satisfying ending point that would have made for a more cohesive and independently satisfying movie, before pushing further forward to cover some ground from the middle movement. This does set up the sequel better: it gives us a clear taste of what is to come and establishes a better opening point. However, the film loses steam. There is a conventional climax and then we keep going in a new narrative direction. The immediate stakes that were set up are brought together, and then we embark on a related but larger journey. It is jarring but, for many, this taste of the desert we end on will be a necessary step to get them back for the sequel. For those aware of where Dune is going, it just doesn’t quite work. But, it is so nice to be back with a giant, beautiful and intelligent enough blockbuster. (there’s nothing to think about here, no real emotional pull, but it certainly isn’t a mind killer). It is a flawed and bloated blockbuster, one with messy politics, but getting your mind back in the mode to critique those things can be its own joy. Fundamentally, when Dune is good (and it is mostly in this mode) it is brilliant, utterly brilliant. It is the Dune movie that the fans deserve, or the first part of the movie they deserve,

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