TL;DR – A cinematic work of genius and masterclass in literary adaptation
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Disclosure – I was invited to a press screening of this film
Dune Review –
Few films have filled me full of trepidation and promise, like the prospect of another Dune film. Dune is a book series that means a lot to me, and the miniseries fits in as one of those foundational moments where you discover the joys of filmmaking. Add to this the spectacular run of films from Denis Villeneuve from Sicario, Arrival & Blade Runner 2049, one of which was my top movie in 2016. Look, this is a long way of saying I came into this with very high expectations, and can I say that this film exceeded all of them.
So to set the scene, in an empire that spans the galaxy, the most valuable commodity is The Spice Melange. It extends life, allows intergalactic travel, and can only be found on one planet in the entire galaxy: Arrakis, Dune. The brutal House Harkonnen runs Dune, though its cruel Barron (Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), commonly called “Beast Rabban”. But their time running Arrakis is up, as the Emperor has decreed that House Harkonnen’s mortal Enemies House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), manages the planet. All is well, but Leto is fearful for him, his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and consort Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Because while this is a great opportunity, it could also be a trap.
It is difficult to know where to approach a film like this, given the absolute spectacle brought to the screen by the cast and crew. But let’s focus on that notion of spectacle. When some people use that word, they use it in the pejorative, but here let it be clear I mean it in nothing but favourable terms. Dune is a film that captures you with the visuals, cast, soundtrack, and frankly in every moment. It brings you into this world of feuding feudal houses, full of politics, religion, and murder aplenty. This is a film that knows, even though it makes no sense, that having a bagpipe led the Atreides out of their ships on the planet was what the film needed. Hans Zimmer presents a musical score that does not slink into the background but asserts itself when it needs to, and if it has to, it will do it in a way that makes your seat shake as coral voices yell around you. Every moment of this film is an experience and one I am better for having.
The spectacle is supported in every moment by a production team that takes care of every minute detail. The combination of expertise on show here is phenomenal. We have a cinematographer Greig Fraser who gave us Lion and Rogue One, the editor of Widows and the rest of Denis films, and a musical composer who might be the most influential composer of our era. But more than that, you have the care and attention to detail from production designer Patrice Vermette, the intricate costumes from Robert Morgan and Jacqueline West, the imagination of Art director Tom Brown, the special effects artist, visual effects artists, sound designers, stunt coordinators, and look I could go on. For a film to work as well as this, every single person must be giving their best, and I am in awe of their talent. An excellent example of where this all comes together is in the trip out to watch a spice miner. Design, effects, music, visuals, and editing all come together in a moment.
Those who have been following Denis Villeneuve filmography will also see how Dune is the evolution of him as a filmmaker. You can see the DNA of some of his past films here, the use of space and height in Blade Runner, the use of framing moments from Arrival, and more. But not only are those influences here but they are also taken to the next level. There is a way that he uses size as a storytelling device. These massive ships come down with their landing pads, so large that you only see a small part of them in the frame, yet you feel how large they are. The last time I felt like this was probably The Fifth Element, and Dune does it better. There is a joy that comes from watching someone take their art to the next level, and we see that here.
Of course, you can have all the excellent production in the world, but that can’t save you if your story falls flat. I have heard it argued before that it is easier to adapt a book than an original story, but the opposite must be true for me. Transforming something from one medium to another is fraught with difficulties, and Dune’s very history is a testament to that. But not only is Dune a good film in its own right, but it is also one of the best adaptations I have watched. I think it was a wise choice to constrain the narrative to the first half of the book. It gave you the space you needed to add all those little details without [mostly] rushing through to the next narrative plot beat. It knows when to just sit with the characters, like with Leto and Paul talking by the cliffs on Caladan and then when it needs to rip the rug out from underneath you. It also knows that it does not have as much space to introduce some of the key concepts on display, so the narrative has been tweaked in places to make it easier for those who might not have read the books to follow along, but in a way that does not dilute the story. There is so much detail here and minor plot points that I was honestly surprised that they kept. I also liked some of their changes to the story, like taking the othering of the Freman and elevating it to more explicitly about colonialism and resource extraction. If I were being picky, yes, I would have liked them to show how long they were on Dune before it all does down because it feels like a week or two in the film, but that is a very minor quibble.
When you have solid production design and a narrative that works, you still need one crucial thing, a cast to bring it to life, and can I say that this might be the best cast film I have seen in a long time. Every single person understood their assignment, so even some of the more minor roles became memorable. I think it helps that Denis has worked with a lot of the cast before, so they can hit the ground running with that pre-existing relationship, but also, I have to shout out the casting directors Jina Jay and Francine Maisler, for the work that they did. There are some inspired choices, like casting Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho. In one hug, you know everything you need to know about the man, and he is a joy to watch on the screen. The gruff Gurney Halleck, as played by Josh Brolin that perfectly captures the raison d’être of the character. Or Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr Liet-Kynes, who captures every scene they are in. Of course, you have Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista and David Dastmalchian, who knew what it meant to be the villains of the piece. By now, you will have probably known that Zendaya is not actually in a lot of the film, which given what part they cover, should not be a big surprise. But hey, every moment she is in it, she commands your attention, which can only mean good things for the sequel.
At the core of the film is the family Atreides where we get the trifecta of Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, and Oscar Isaac. Of the three, I was worried that Timothée might not capture the role as it is full of complicated motivations, including everything the Bene Gesserit were doing. But I should not have been concerned because he perfectly captures that kid trying to be a man and wondering what sort of man he will be as the whole world shifts under his feet. If you have seen anything that Rebecca Ferguson has been in, like Mission: Impossible – Fallout, you know she makes an instant impression, well Dune is no exception. Also, Oscar Isaac perfectly imbues Leto. A man stuck between the competing needs of duty and family. You know instantly that he is a good man and a good father, and look, it may be cheesy, but when he said that Paul had “you’ll still be the only thing I ever needed you to be, my son”, like you felt that. I knew what the story was going, I knew where all the cast was going to end up, but even then, I wanted to be wrong because they were so good at it.
In the end, do we recommend Dune? Implicitly. If it is safe for you to do so, I recommend seeing this film on the biggest screen that you can find. This film understands its source material, understands its artform, and understands that it is an event. I honestly cannot recommend this film enough, and it is at the time of writing my film of the year. If you liked Dune, I would also recommend to you Sicario, Arrival & Blade Runner 2049 .
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Dune
Directed by – Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by – Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve & Eric Roth
Based on – Dune by Frank Herbert
Music by – Hans Zimmer
Cinematography by – Greig Fraser
Edited by – Joe Walker
Production/Distribution Companies – Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures & Warner Brother Pictures.
Starring – Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Babs Olusanmokun, Benjamin Clementine, Golda Rosheuvel & Roger Yuan
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: 13+; Germany: 12; New Zealand: M; United Kingdom: 12A; United States: PG-13