Movie Review: Dune (2021) (Spoiler-free)

One of the two most highly anticipated films of the year (the other being NO TIME TO DIE) has finally arrived at our cinemas. Like many tentpole films of late, the release of DUNE was delayed by almost a year due to the pandemic. Not all fans will get their fix of the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic right away though. Audiences in the US and Canada will have to wait until October 22nd. In those markets, it will premiere on HBO Max on the same day.

Set in the far future, DUNE tells the epic story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, LITTLE WOMEN; A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK; BEAUTIFUL BOY; LADY BIRD; CALL ME BY YOUR NAME), the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, the STAR WARS franchise; TRIPLE FRONTIER; AT ETERNITY’S GATE; ANNIHILATION; SUBURBICON; EX MACHINA; A MOST VIOLENT YEAR; INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) and his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, REMINISCENCE; DOCTOR SLEEP; MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT; THE GREATEST SHOWMAN), and sole heir to the noble House Atreides of the planet Caladan. At the request of the Emperor, Leto accepts stewardship of Arrakis, which is also known as Dune, a desert planet that is the only source of the universe’s most valuable substance — a spice melange that provides exceptional levels of thought, extends human life and allows for hypersonic space travel. Dune is also the home of mammoth sandworms that gobble up everything in their path, including the giant extractors that are used to mine the spice from the sand. The rival House Harkonnen led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, THE PAINTED BIRD; the MAMMA MIA! franchise; TV’s CHERNOBYL) had been mining the spice on Dune for many years but with the Emperor’s edict, they suddenly find themselves shut out of this very lucrative business. Leto expects that he is being set up to fail by the Emperor but he agrees to the mission anyway, taking Paul and Lady Jessica with him on the journey.

Lady Jessica, meanwhile, belongs to the Bene Gessurit, an ancient matriarchal spiritual order whose members train their minds and bodies to obtain superhuman powers and abilities. A male messiah has been prophesied for millennia and Jessica believes that Paul may be that person. The Reverend Mother, Gaius Helen Mohaim (Charlotte Rampling, RED SPARROW; TV’s DEXTER), isn’t so sure though. For his part, Paul has been having dreams of late about Dune and in particular about a young woman who lives there. When they arrive on Arrakis, Paul meets the woman, named Chani (Zendaya, the SPIDER-MAN franchise; MALCOLM & MARIE; THE GREATEST SHOWMAN). She is a Fremen, a member of the tribe of people who have been living on Arrakis for thousands of years. Exploited by the House Harkonnen, they are no fans of the Empire and, by extension, the House Atreides.

Anyone who has seen David Lynch’s 1984 wacky interpretation of the Herbert’s story will be more than pleased with this version, which is directed by Denis Villeneuve (BLADE RUNNER 2049; ARRIVAL; SICARIO), who also shares the writing credit on the screenplay. This DUNE is big, bold and cinematically beautiful to watch, especially on an IMAX screen. Unless you have a massive TV and a super-spiffy sound system at home, take thyself to the biggest screen your local cinema has! While Lynch’s DUNE is an experience that everyone should behold once in their lifetime (especially the scene with Sting all oiled up and dressed in a winged diaper), the director really didn’t do justice to Herbert’s very heady source material. Villeneuve’s DUNE is closer to the book and the story makes much more sense this time around. Die-hard STAR WARS fans and other ill-informed people may feel that Villeneuve ripped off George Lucas but, um, no. It’s clear from watching this DUNE that Lucas “borrowed” (and I’m being polite here) from Frank Herbert, from the desert planets (Arrakis vs. Tatooine) to the power of suggestion (The Voice vs. the Jedi Mind Trick) to the chosen one (Paul Atreides vs. Anakin Skywalker) and more. But while STAR WARS is a simple yet highly entertaining (at least the first three films were) space opera, DUNE is contemplative and cerebral. It’s also captivating. Though it’s 153 minutes long, it’s never boring.

At least one film critic who has seen the film has taken umbrage with Javier Bardem being cast as a Fremen, feeling that his skin tone was the wrong colour. Wait a sec while I roll my eyes. Really? You’re going to nitpick that? For me, the casting by Jina Jay (SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME; MARY MAGDALENE) and Francine Maisler (THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7; LITTLE WOMEN) was masterful. Everyone looked their part. Even Chalamet, whom many people dismiss as a poster child for twinkdom, was perfectly cast. Paul is a young man who is more brain than brawn. There’s a great scene that punctuates this fact when he reunites with one of his mentors, the very macho Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa, AQUAMAN). Equally on-the-nose were Jacqueline West’s (THE REVENANT) and Bob Morgan’s (MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL) magnificent costumes, and Patrice Vermette’s (VICE; ARRIVAL; SICARIO) visually stunning production design. But most impressive is Hans Zimmer’s (DUNKIRK; BLADE RUNNER 2049) immersive score that is brooding, majestic and mysterious, each when it needs to be. If I can complain about one thing though, it’s that the music sometimes drowns out the dialogue. I had to read the Chinese subtitles to know what was being said.

I honestly didn’t think I’d enjoy DUNE as much as I did. It’s easily one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year and maybe even worth a second watch. Expect to see it garner more than a few Oscar nominations come March of next year. In the meantime though, bring on Part 2!

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