Dune movie review: dreams of alien worlds

MaryAnn’s quick take: Monumental. Villeneuve tells a familiar story with uncommon elegance and pensiveness, even dreaminess, on a breathtaking scale. A stunningly gorgeous, supremely dignified movie about ugly things.
I’m “biast” (pro): big SF geek; mostly love Denis Villeneuve’s films; love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have read the source material (and I am indifferent about it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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The word I keep coming back to is monumental. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is monumental in a way that hasn’t been true of a film in a long time. The director and coscreenwriter has taken a story that is familiar — and not just because it’s based on a book, by Frank Herbert, beloved by many — and told it with uncommon elegance and pensiveness, even dreaminess, on a scale that is breathtaking.

Almost a decade ago, I reconsidered The Phantom Menace when it was rejiggered for 3D. Back then I wrote:

No one is making movies like this anymore. Hardly anyone ever did. There’s sweep here like nobody’s business. [snip] No one worldbuilds in movies the way that [George] Lucas did… yes, even in the less-than-satisfying second [Star Wars] trilogy. The bigness of Lucas’s vision is positively expansive, of a civilization sprawling enough so that even the biggest of the big baddies — Darth Vader, the Empire — are nothing but a distant rumor to many.

Dune
Monumental.

But now, here, with Villeneuve’s Dune, we have something like that again. And getting caught up in it is magnificent. Even if Dune is a very different kind of movie.

Yes, it’s another hero’s journey (and a white-savior one, too, dammit), though this is more like if Star Wars was presented from the perspective of Princess Leia. For here we have young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet: Little Women, Beautiful Boy), heir to House Atreides, one of the great houses that rule, under an emperor, interstellar human civilization in year 10,191. Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac: The Card Counter, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), has just been commanded by the emperor to take over the mining of spice on the planet Arrakis; the spice is the most valuable commodity known to humanity, because its hallucinogenic qualities allow navigators to traverse interstellar space. (It just does, okay?) This new post for the Atreideses is dangerous for many reasons, not least because the “brutal” House Harkonnen, from whom the emperor has stripped the spice franchise, is unlikely to take this lightly. But Duke Leto is a genuinely good man — grading on the curve of capitalistic colonizers, at least — and believes he can bring peace to Arrakis, which has been torn with strife under Harkonnen rule.

So House Atreides hies off from their home planet of Caladan for Arrakis…

Dune Josh Brolin Oscar Isaac Stephen McKinley Henderson
Be warned: This is a very beardy movie.

Paul isn’t sure if he can wear the mantle his father expects of him: to take over House Atreides, eventually. And he’s been having dreams of Arrakis, even before the emperor’s unexpected command, and of a young woman of the indigenous Fremen there, called Chani (Zendaya: Spider-Man: Homecoming), though he doesn’t know her name yet. These dreams are strange to him, and even possibly prophetic… because Paul has inherited talents from his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson: Reminiscence, Doctor Sleep), a former acolyte of the “witchy” Bene Gesserit sect of women who are powers behind thrones everywhere. For one thing, they don’t use the Force, but they do use the Voice, with which they can command the weak-minded. Soon enough, we learn that Paul, thanks to his mother’s doing, may even be the Kwisatz Haderach, a savior prophesied by the Bene Gesserit.

(As you may suspect or already know, Lucas was inspired by Dune when creating Star Wars. The Luke analogue here might be Chani. Funny how these sorts of stories only ever allow women to be on the periphery but never at the center. Do the men who invent these tales imagine that women have no angst, no doubt, no desire for adventure, and no fear of actually succeeding at it? Can a woman never be any flavor of Chosen One?)

Dune Rebecca Ferguson Timothée Chalamet
“So, I know men always see their sons as gods, but guess what, Leto?”

But unlike Star Wars, this is not a movie about space battles, and while it is about revolution, that is only maybe just beginning to foment here. (This movie is but Part One. We must hope Part Two gets greenlighted.) There is some action, some things getting blowed up real good, but mostly Dune is supremely dignified, often quiet even in tense moments, a thoughtful and stunningly gorgeous movie about ugly things: oppression and imperialism, political maneuvering and strategic assassinations, parents who bring children into the universe to serve their own presumed grand purposes.

The performances by the wonderful cast are terrific: to a one, they bring a gravitas to the proceedings that elevates the film even further. This is a solemn movie that treats science fiction with the seriousness it deserves, and too rarely gets onscreen. There is nothing winking here.

Dune
Wormsign!

But in many ways, this Dune is all worldbuilding, of the best, most engrossing kind. There are few infodumps, and those we get are gracefully presented, as when Paul watches a “film book” about the ecology Arrakis. Mostly, Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) lets us absorb the reality of human existence eight thousand years from now in the majestic vistas of Caladan (played by the fjords of Norway) and Arrakis (for which the deserts of Jordan stand in), and in little touches that clue us into how people live: “How does it feel to walk on a new world?” someone asks Paul when the Atreideses arrive on Arrakis, and so we learn that even for a young man of immense wealth and privilege like him, interstellar travel is rare. (Even the vast expense of an imperial visit to Caladan is marveled at.) Atreides tech — oh, those excellent insectile ornithopters! — looks different from Harkonnen tech, neither of which could be mistaken for imperial tech. Enormous ships defy gravity… but a bagpiper acts as a herald for House Atreides. Memories of Earth linger on these worlds — in names Caladan (echoing Caledonia) like Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa: Aquaman, The Bad Batch) — but they are memories only.

If you’re a fan of this particular type of science fiction, of big, broad, far-ranging space opera… if you long for alien landscapes, for new worlds, here they are. Dune may be unfinished, even as it clocks in at more than two and a half hours, but it is deeply satisfying nevertheless.


I am not going to say “You must see this in a cinema, and on the biggest screen possible!” I did see this in IMAX, and it was indeed enrapturing. But we are still mid-global-deadly-pandemic, and cases are soaring in the US and the UK, where many of you reading this are. (If you’re somewhere else, where the pandemic has been better controlled, lucky you!) If you feel comfortable going to a cinema, please wear a mask and go at a less busy time, if you can, even if you are fully vaccinated. If you decide to see this at home, you will still find enormous pleasures here. And, I have no doubt, many of the films that hit screens this year and last will, in coming years, get big-screen rereleases. No movie is worth risking your life or your health, or those of others, for.

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Danielm80
Danielm80
Tue, Oct 26, 2021 9:24pm

Here’s Anthony Lane’s plot summary of the film, from his New Yorker review:

“The emperor of the known universe,” whoever he may be, dispatches Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), and his clan to take over from the Harkonnens (a real bunch of bruisers) on the dun-colored planet of Arrakis, there to continue the vital harvesting of “spice.” This, allegedly, is the most valuable of all substances, for it aids interstellar travel.

I think, rather than see the actual film, I’d like to see a comedy about a stoner college student writing a terrible, derivative science fiction novel that was inspired by the book.

amanohyo
amanohyo
Wed, Oct 27, 2021 3:22am

This was the second half of a double feature following No Time to Die, an interminable car commercial of a film, so I was already a tad grumpy going in. Keeping that in mind, I failed to be swept away. The scale of the special effects was neat, but I didn’t care about any of the characters except for Lady Jessica (thanks to Ferguson’s excellent acting), so there was almost no tension in any of the political maneuvering or fights.

I already complained about this in BladeRunner 2049, but my lord and lady does Villeneuve love him some walking shots. The Wizard of Oz doesn’t have half the amount of walking that this film does, and that movie is literally about a girl walking on a road. It’s possible that I’m just not a fan of Denis’ directing style and visuals – they feel a bit too sterile and safe. Say what you will about Lynch’s glorious failure – the “box scene” and floaty man’s heart plug drainage is still stuck in my head thirty years later – I doubt I’ll remember anything from this version in six months.

Wait, that’s not true, I will remember its callous disregard for basic physics. There’s a scene where Skaterboy Lawrence and Our Lady of Hypnotic Persuasion are being tossed around like a ragdoll in their dragonfly copter but appear surprisingly stationary and unjostled. “Oh this is supposed to be some kind of metaphorical internal image depicting their mental calmness,” I rationalized, only to see them shake and shimmy like Kirk and Spock on the deck of a torpedoed Enterprise moments later as they glided in a relatively straight line. Do physics exist or do they not, Denis? Please make up your mind good sir.

Now it’s been a few decades since I read the books, but I’m starting to think Sexy Teen Jesus isn’t the Quizno’s hatrack. Sure he’s got the build for it, but during the entire film, I never saw him offer anyone a solitary sub or even a refreshing cup of cream of broccoli soup to say nothing of holding or even wearing a hat. Also, perhaps this is accurate to the source material, but African American and Asian men do not exactly get fantastic representation in this movie. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that, but um… yikes these are old stereotypes – like 50 years or more, real classics dusted off and brought up from the cellar.

One positive – I did enjoy the music, especially the funky throat singing on the Emperor’s planet. However, if you happen not to enjoy the music, you will quickly be driven insane. A few films have what I would call an “overbearing” soundtrack – then there’s this movie, in which the majority of the scenes feel like a soundtrack with a movie playing in the background. I like to sit in the first row which was a big mistake this evening – my ears are still ringing two hours later. The music is admittedly great though, much better than the desert tech demo/walking simulator it’s doing its best to drown out.

If you happen to be a huge fan of the novels, then I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of seeing the Quidditch Haberdasher running around in a big budget tentpole flick, even though he doesn’t catch a single golden snitch or even talk about sewing Aquaman a cool hat. If you’re more of a casual fan of the books, this isn’t a bad movie, at best it might even be half of an average movie, I guess we’ll find out in a few years. It’s more fun and imaginative than No Time to Die, I’ll give it that. Just don’t go in expecting the next Lord of the Rings, Empire Strikes Back, or even Game of Thrones. The review has it right on the money, go in expecting the next Phantom Menace, and you’ll almost certainly have a good time.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Sat, Oct 30, 2021 3:32pm

I will remember its callous disregard for basic physics.

If you’re gonna insist on scientific accuracy, there are very few science fiction films left for you to enjoy.

If you’re more of a casual fan of the books, this isn’t a bad movie

I find the books pretty intolerable, and yet I love this!

amanohyo
amanohyo
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Oct 30, 2021 8:35pm

Yeah, I was mostly being silly. I love a ton of bad science fiction movies with questionable physics. I read the books as a wee lad, but have to agree that this is an overall more enjoyable experience. Herbert’s writing, like that of a lot of sci-fi/fantasy authors, is a bit too heavy on infodumps, and too light on subtle character development for my tastes.

This film has even more paper-thin characters than the books, but the visuals are definitely awe-inspiring at times, and the soundtrack is both unique and fitting. I’m sure if I wasn’t grouchy from nearly three hours of half-assed Bond car chases/cheesy melodrama, I would have enjoyed it more. In two or three years, when it’s finally complete, I’ll watch the whole thing and reevaluate how I feel.

Also, the “box scene” in the Lynch version is one of my favorite sequences in all of 80’s sci-fi, so I was pretty let down by the lack of drama/psychedelic visuals in this version. Except for Ferguson, the casting didn’t work for me either. Isaac is an outstanding actor, but seems to be phoning it in – I kept expecting him to fall asleep mid-sentence. Momoa is a lovable meathead who still can’t act his way out of a wet paper bag (surprisingly great on SNL though). Sting was a lousy actor, but his Feyd Rautha is such a wacko badass it works out – Bautista is a poor substitute (playing a different char. of course). Brolin is fine, but he sure ain’t no Patrick Stewart. Bardem and Zendaya are barely there, and I could not take anything Chalamet said seriously with that relaxed, skaterbro accent or take any of his fights seriously with that heroin-chic physique.

So all that left for me was cool visuals and a dope soundtrack. I had a good time with those, but not enough to really draw me into the world. I’m glad you loved it. My other go-to critic, Walter Chaw also absolutely adored this version, so I figured I’d give it a shot, but no luck for me this time around. I went on half-price Tuesday though, so I definitely got at least 6 bucks-worth of entertainment. =)

amanohyo
amanohyo
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Oct 31, 2021 1:29am

Oh no, the google algorithm just recommended this to me, we must have passed the singularity when I wasn’t paying attention:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bewKPi9gdT4

deirdre
deirdre
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Feb 01, 2022 11:41pm

The sandworm attack on the source harvester accurately shows vibration induced sand liquifaction. Somebody consulted with an engineering geologist, because that’s EXACTLY what happens with cohesionless sediment under intense vibration (like earthquakes)

Vincenzo Beretta
Vincenzo Beretta
Sat, Nov 06, 2021 2:15pm

Regarding the “White Saviour problem”, Frank Herbert had already tackled it back when the book was published, by pointing out how Paul is anything but (and the whole “Prophecy” is nothing else than a false religion created by the Bene Gesserit).

The central theme of “Dune” is that mindless ecological alteration done for profit (or any other reason) leads to disaster. This is what makes the book so important in our current times and I hope that the message will not be lost in the Second Part.

amanohyo
amanohyo
reply to  Vincenzo Beretta
Sat, Nov 06, 2021 4:05pm

That’s an excellent point – I like that Paul cynically uses the Bene Gesserit Prophecy (that he doubts is true) to gain political power from religiously motivated followers for the revolution. It’s a more realistic and nuanced portrayal of politics and organized religion (and a not so subtle jab at Catholicism) than we typically see in sci-fi blockbusters. If your hopes bear fruit and that perspective and the ecological message survive in Part 2, I’ll definitely upgrade my opinion.

This Part was a little too light on plot/ideas for me, but I suppose it was mostly concerned with world building and accuracy to the source material (primarily via the generous deployment of walking scenes – felt like watching scifi Aaron Sorkin in sloooow motion). The next part should have some more juicy character development and intricate sociopolitical maneuvering. My prediction about Part One’s lasting power was correct though. It’s only been a week, and I’ve already forgotten watching 95% of this. YMMV of course.

deirdre
deirdre
reply to  amanohyo
Tue, Feb 01, 2022 11:46pm

My experience was very, very different.

This movie has stayed with me in a way nothing else has in the last 6 years or more.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Vincenzo Beretta
Sun, Nov 07, 2021 2:33pm

I’m reviewing this one movie. Not the books, and not whatever movie(s) may follow.

In this movie, Paul is depicted as a white savior. Whether the Prophecy is “real” or not is beside the point. White Western men, whether Herbert and Villeneuve, think it’s plausible that indigenous people would accept an outsider — who just happens to look more like a white Western man than he does like those indigenous people — as their salvation. Even if you want to take Dune as a critique of the idea of the white savior — and, again, there’s no hint of that in this movie — we can still question that critique being structured as it is.

K
K
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, Nov 17, 2021 5:32pm

Female chosen ones not written by women ? His Dark Materials. Sadly, that’s about it.

Beowulf
Beowulf
reply to  K
Thu, Nov 18, 2021 9:26pm

What about L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy? And doesn’t a male character in one of the later Oz books turn out to be a girl? (“Ozma”?)

Steve
Steve
reply to  K
Sun, Nov 28, 2021 9:14am

Also Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

deirdre
deirdre
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Feb 01, 2022 11:44pm

When Chani narrates the beginning and asks who their next oppressor will be, the next person we see is Paul.

That is not an accident.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  deirdre
Wed, Feb 09, 2022 1:28pm

I’m sure it’s not an accident. But the movie still centers Paul. This is Paul’s story, which creates empathy for Paul. The Fremen are barely characters.

amanohyo
amanohyo
Sun, Nov 28, 2021 5:09pm

Whether the second half turns out brilliantly or flubs the landing, this will have been more than worth the hundreds of millions spent if only because it inspired one of my favorite creators to return and craft this silly, romantic ditty. The opening verse is so gloriously stupid it’s almost profound:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXfSg7mLEdU

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Wed, Dec 01, 2021 10:36am

Hilarious!