Movie Review - 'Dune'

Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction tome “Dune” influenced every modern piece of space opera since its publication. Everything from “Star Wars” to “Stargate” liberally borrowed from this seminal text, and yet fans have waited decades for a proper film adaptation. Cinema’s surrealist maverick David Lynch took a stab at it in 1984 but studio interference and a lack of passion for the source material made for an awkward turkey for fans and critics alike. Television adaptations also tried to revive the work, but budgetary constraints bound Herbert’s original vision.

French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve decided to cash in the goodwill he accumulated with visually stunning and moody masterworks such as “Sicario,” “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049” to adapt his so-called dream project, “Dune.” And with Villeneuve at the helm, there was confidence that the scale, the visual dynamics and tone of the novel would be faithful.

The story takes place in a distant future in which the feudal house of Atreides travels to the desert planet of Arrakis to acquire a valuable resource called spice — a psychotropic substance, both used for spiritual rituals by the desert dwellers of this region, as well as a kind of fuel for guiding interstellar travel. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine mistress, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), bring along their teenage son Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). The curious and ambitious boy was raised by his mother and other spiritualists to believe that he will fulfill an ancient prophecy and, as such, secretly dreams about their impending future with great accuracy.

When the peaceful transition of power from the current occupying forces is spoiled by an infiltrating force called the Harkonnen, Paul is then responsible for saving his mother and escaping to the deeper desert territory. There he hopes he can wield his messianic reputation on the planet to team with the desert natives known as the Fremen.

Like any epic science-fiction/fantasy, this story takes a lot of time to build and explain its foundations to an uninitiated audience. The first half of this two-and-a-half-hour experience — which, in and of itself, is only one-half of the original Dune novel— uses most of the runtime to introduce us to the characters and explain the interworking politics of these warring factions. Even still, the necessary exposition is whispered in sullen dialogue that’s chockablock with made-up fantasy dialect and dense world-building. This is the type of film that asks you to lean into your seat, listen carefully and pay close attention. But fear not, your patience and concentration will be rewarded.

Once the who’s who is set in motion, the second half of this installment flings the characters from one action spectacle to another. Betrayals, assassinations, coups and jihads light up the plot light a powder keg, and you either did your work as an audience member to understand these machinations of political intrigue, or you were too busy ordering delivery on GrubHub.

You can watch “Dune” at home on HBO Max or at your local theater As someone who stayed home, I will find time to rewatch this on a big screen to get the full, intended experience, not only to get a better grasp on the story elements but to see this glorious world stretched from one auditorium wall to the other. The special effects look natural and lived-in yet alien and fantastical at the same time. The cinematography by Greig Fraser adds another level of monument and scale to Villeneuve’s visual strategy. The wailing score by Hans Zimmer is at times distracting but does a fine job at underlying the grandiosity of the drama.

While the huge celebrity cast — including Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Zendaya and Stellan Skarsgard — is pitch-perfect, this is not a “Star Wars” or “Marvel” type of light-hearted, character-oriented journey. Paul’s tribulations keep us invested but the movie works best as a work of allegory about power struggles, ecological exploitation and the casualties of imperialism. While I can’t imagine anyone losing interest in the bombast of “Dune” as a work of stylistic genius, some may be turned off by its complexity and tonal austerity.

Grade: A-

Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.