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Review: Dune (2021)

Dune (2021)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Premise: Based on the novel by Frank Herbert. Set far into the future, a noble family assumes control of the mining operation on a desert planet. As various political forces mobilize against the family, their son (Timothée Chalamet) has messianic visions. 

What Works: Dune is a beautifully made picture. The film regularly treats the viewer to extraordinary visuals. The landscapes and cityscapes are grand but also appear quite natural as does the technology. The filmmakers clearly used a combination of practical and digital imagery and the various elements merge together seamlessly. Dune also has impressive sound. The audio mixing and editing creates a vivid aural environment. Hans Zimmer’s score is also quite effective. Zimmer’s music sometimes skirts between a traditional score and sound effects and that’s certainly the case in Dune. The approach works well in this film; the music underscores the action but it also characterizes the fictional cultures of this world. Dune has an impressive cast. Although the actors aren’t given much to do, they are cast to their strengths and the performers are well matched with their parts especially Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides.

What Doesn’t: Like many of Denis Villeneuve’s movies, Dune is emotionally cold. This quality is a product of Villeneuve’s filmmaking and storytelling style. While that approach worked in Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, it does not serve Dune very well. The film lacks tangible stakes at micro and macro levels. The characters of this film remain at a distance and they don’t have desires that are accessible and discernable. This is most evident with Paul, played by Timothée Chalamet. Dune is about a young man becoming a leader but there is little sense of that in this film. The larger political story is rushed through and it makes little difference whether House Atreides or House Harkonnen controls the mining operation on Arrakis. Dune also suffers from being an incomplete story. The film only adapts the first half of Frank Herbert’s novel (which itself is the first in a series of books). There’s just not very much story in this film. Unlike Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which came to a logical and emotionally satisfying end point while pivoting to The Two Towers, the first installment of Dune is nearly all set up. The finale of this movie is a knife fight between Paul and a nondescript character in which nothing meaningful is won or affirmed.

Bottom Line: Dune is a spectacular visual experience and it is worth seeing in a large format theater specifically for that reason but the movie is dramatically hollow. It plays more like a pilot episode of a television show than a standalone feature film. The second part will have to pick up the emotional appeal that this installment lacks.

Episode: #877 (November 7, 2021)