Cliche as it may sound, Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s foundational 1965 sci-fi novel, “Dune” (2021) feels as though it shouldn’t exist, much less serve as the overture to an epic that seems poised to be the next “Lord of The Rings.”
Set tens of thousands of years in the future, the film follows the young heir to the feudal House Atreides, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), as his family travels to their new home, the planet Arrakis, or Dune. The eponymous planet is both the only place in the universe where the ubiquitous psychoactive drug “spice” can be harvested and the site of a trap by the foul House Harkonnen that threatens to destroy the House Atreides.
That incredibly truncated summary betrays a core issue with the film: the utter density of its world and source material. The original novel is famously complex and layered, using copious amounts of in-universe language and descriptors and expecting readers to keep up. The compromise that Villeneuve makes, then, is to frontload the first act with exposition to lay the groundwork for the film to come (and the seemingly inevitable sequel), which makes the opening feel slow-paced or even a bit boring at times. This barrier to entry isn’t helped by the film’s frequent use of intercutting as a technique to show Paul’s increasingly frequent visions. This technique isn’t kind to first-time viewers and can lead to some confusion or even a few moments of unintentional comedy from poor juxtaposition of events. Coupled with occasional moments of poor audio mixing or unclear dialogue, you have the potential for a disastrous first-time viewing experience.
On reflection though? I found that these “flaws” actually enhanced the viewing experience. While the exposition dumps are a bit tedious, they do serve to ease the audience in and make some of the more esoteric elements of the book more easily digestible. The slow-burn approach also creates a true explosion of action when the battle between the houses begins, culminating in a grand battle scene that feels impactful and heart-wrenching, given the time we had to spend with these characters. Paul’s visions evoke notes of associational montage and force viewers to pay attention to when and why they occur, showing the true power of the spice. These moments are helped in no small part by Chalamet’s excellent performance, as Paul suffers episodes foretelling a dark and devastating future.
The visuals are breathtaking, plain and simple. The cinematography by Greig Fraser gives every wide shot an epic feel, though Fraser does not fear more intimate close-up shots when necessary. No shot ever feels over-indulgent or showy, rather the film feels like an imaginative love letter to one of science fiction’s greatest stories.
Villeneuve’s direction of his cast perfectly backs up the visual style, integrating just enough of our modern world to be accessible, but never forgetting that these are alien worlds thousands of years in the future. From anchoring performances like Rebecca Ferguson’s detached yet vulnerable Lady Jessica to smaller roles like Jason Mamoa’s master swordsman Duncan Idaho, there doesn’t seem to be a weak performance in the entire cast. The unfortunate nature of the film being only the first part of a trilogy, though, is that many characters like Dave Bautista’s Glossu Rabban feel more like cameo roles to prepare for their fuller development in the sequel.
I’ve found myself thinking back on “Dune” over the last week, and each time I think about something I disliked, I find a new reason to enjoy it. While it might not be to everyone’s taste, and the aforementioned problems aside, “Dune” is a fine-tuned machine of a film that demands your near-total attention, and I’m frankly shocked that it was released so widely and is being so positively received. Be that as it may, as much as “Dune” demands, it returns a captivating experience that demands repeat viewings.