Dune review: Stirring sci-fi epic ends too soon, and it’s good and bad
The Dune saga is as intriguing and ambiguous as the quicksand of the desert. So it’s fitting that a new star-studded film adaptation is both hugely satisfying and deeply frustrating at the same time. Thisis a cinematic sci-fi tour de force, a starry yet deeply bizarre fantasy epic, a thoughtful and thrilling cinematic experience.
Then it stops right in the middle.
Directed by Denis Villenueve, this new version of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel opens with a title that reads “Dune: Part One”. It’s the first sign that the movie isn’t going to give you much closure. Instead, it’s chock-full of ideas and stunning visuals and information by the spaceship charge, all to set up a story that just begins when the credits roll out of nowhere.
Premiering at the Venice Film Festival on Friday, Dune is in theaters October 22. It will also be released the same day on the HBO Max streaming service and will be available to stream at home for a month.
The powerful Atreides and Harkonnen families are aristocrats of space who vie for the planet Arrakis, a desert world where the only thing more treacherous than quicksand is stabbing politics. Arrakis is the only source of spice, a substance that serves as fuel for space travel in the dune universe. In Arrakis, the spices shine in the very air, a wealth so intoxicating that one can taste them.
Spice has a mysterious attraction to Timothée Chalamet’s young prince, Paul Atreides. He has a lot to do: his father (Oscar Isaac) is a duke of integrity who teaches him to play the game of cosmic realpolitik; her mother (Rebecca Ferguson) is an overpowered space witch; he is plagued by excited teenage dreams of a blue-eyed desert warrior (Zendaya); and he just might be an intergalactic messiah.
Paul is at the heart of this thrilling space epic, which combines the intrigue of the Shakespearean castle with panoramic desert views, incendiary battle scenes and a cast of billions. In Villeneuve’s hands, this version of Dune is a richly detailed and extremely evocative imagination filled with striking imagery. It is extremely strange and winning.
The film juxtaposes feverish science-fantasy and medieval imagery: sinister space nuns in puffy robes descend from menacing spaceships; Interplanetary treaties are endorsed by wax seals under floating banners; Berserk armies sacrifice blood before donning silent jetpacks. These are faceless helmets and deep shadows as the action shifts from rain-slipped granite to quicksand, to a hypnotic and thrilling Hans Zimmer score of lamentable choirs, electric drones, nervous percussion and great bwaarrrrps. honked. And bagpipes.
The rain-stricken homeworld of the Atreides vertical house is perfect for pacing up and down the wave-battered cliffs. The vaguely Catholic setting of this world includes a bullfighting motif, which suggests two distinct but intertwined themes: a reckless fight against an unpredictable adversary and a connection to Spain reminiscent of the Spanish conquistadors of old.
This connection with the ancient invaders highlights the timelessness of the urge to conquer and enslave, drawing a line from the past to the present. Dune’s theme of plundering the desert’s resources has always resonated with Western manipulation and exploitation of the rest of the world, from the bygone days of colonialism to the Gulf War and the War on Terror. The conflict is explicitly grounded by Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser in the visual style of a modern war film. Dragonfly-like planes fly past the camera like Vietnamese-era gunships as the air fills with distinctly 20th-century radio chatter. All that’s missing is Ride of the Valkyries on the soundtrack as Dune streams fight movies from Apocalypse Now to Lawrence of Arabia at Black Hawk Down.
The film opens with an army suddenly withdrawing from Arrakis, and it’s a chilling picture in light of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in recent weeks.
“Arrakis saw men like you come and go,” said a native. “Who will be our next oppressor? asks the world-weary narrator.
The conflict is explicitly motivated by wealth, and it’s fascinating to watch a sci-fi film tackle the economics of politics as well as the familiar interplanetary power struggles of Star Wars and Star Trek. House Atreides may be noble and Harkonnen venal, but their nature is irrelevant in this galactic economy: no matter what they think about it, they must meet their quotas. Space capitalism!
However, this is not a controversy. There are so many ideas flying in this movie that many are only mentioned once, and you are invited to develop your own thoughts on inequality, resource scarcity, climate crisis, war, feudalism. , space travel, dreams, parenthood, oneness with nature, and much more. As if that weren’t enough to think about, everything is wrapped up in a dense tradition of, which means multiple voiceovers explaining everything.
The weirdness of science fiction is also based on a limited range of colors on the screen. Beyond the darkness of space, the only colors in this universe are gray and beige. Don’t get me wrong, Dune looks great, but aside from the fantastic design, the muted palette is almost dull.
The acting is also silent: everyone is impassive and solemn and mutters the often incomprehensible dialogue in low voices. Like Villeneuve’s previous films, it’s dramatic and intense. But it’s also more of a note, allowing Jason Momoa to stand out, for example, just by showing he’s having fun. The most dynamic lineup comes from Ferguson as the matriarch of the conflicted Atreids, embodying the emotional turmoil of a character who is both a passionate mother and an intriguing fanatic.
As for the actor in the lead role, Chalamet’s moving cheekbones and eyes do most of the storytelling. Like Ryan Gosling in, he doesn’t have much to say, which makes his character either seductively ambiguous or vaguely defined. Is he conscientious or distracted? Is he a reluctant leader or an ambitious conspirator?
The young prince is troubled by visions of the future, and they are also disturbing to the viewer. Some of these visions turn into a sequel and frankly sound more exciting than some of the endless streaks in Part One. With such an abrupt ending begging for a sequel, you might wonder if they shot the two films together. No: the– and only if this first film is a success, which is far from guaranteed in the face of a pandemic and a streaming release potentially cannibalizing its box office revenues.
If you liked Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, then Dune may beto its Villeneuviest. If you like to sweep military sci-fi with a touch of weirdness, Dune will be your jam. The palette and muted performance won’t be to everyone’s liking, but I could spend a lot more time in this world – when the sequel finally arrives, anyway. Even if it doesn’t offer much ending, this new Dune is a hell of a start.
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