Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth, based on Dune by Frank Herbert
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem
I’ve had a few days to think about the power of Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” the second take on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel of the same name (which I started reading but haven’t yet finished). The first take, David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of the entire novel, was a critical miss at the time and has developed a cult following over the years.
That’s the first important note about Villeneuve’s take – this is part one of the modern adaptation, now in theaters and on HBO Max. While I don’t like to set expectations and let’s be realistic, there are expectations of this new film; if there’s anything to say about “Dune,” don’t expect a conclusion at the end of this film, though the point at which it cuts off makes logical sense.
Second, comparisons with Lynch’s version are thrown right out of the Space Miner’s Guild time transport windows with this version of “Dune.” Villeneuve offers a grand spectacle of an adventure of destiny, of commerce, of secret plans within plans, of an oppressed people with a long history of nomadic tendencies.
Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atredies, the noble son of Duke Leto Atredies (Oscar Isaac). Chalamet’s take is the second recent performance in which he casts off the pouty prose for a dramatic, theatrical flair that suits the young character. Father and son have meaningful interactions, and Villeneuve, along with co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus”) and Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”), understands what’s at stake for these characters. Gone are the overt political motivations imbued in Lynch’s version with a voiceover and his introduction, replaced with nuanced plans buried in the script to shape the destinies of our characters, which I understand follows the novel very closely.
Where Chalamet plays the eponymous Paul with a theatricality, the rest of the ensemble cast round out the characters without emotion, another aspect featured in Herbert’s novel, so I understand. The feeling lies within the story of the Atreides’ fiefdom over planet Arakis, of Paul’s ascension through his destiny, the sole source of the spice mélange and over the warring factions between the Atreides and the Harkkonen. At the order of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, Arakis is evacuated by the House Harkkonen, enemies of the Atreides’ and with the planet’s native Fremen and the Atreides begin their stewardship of spice harvesting.
“Dune” plays like an out-of-this-world “Lawrence of Arabia,” grand in its visual spectacle and epic in its storytelling and sprawling themes. More importantly, it conveys Paul’s journey as a nomad of sorts, akin to the deserts of Arakis and the Atredies’ efforts to broker peace with the Fremen.
The cast defines the remainder of the roles adequately with Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Leto’s consort. Jessica is a member of the Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, and there is a level of care and mother-son bonding between Chalamet and Ferguson beyond their characters. Charlotte Rampling plays Gaius Helen Mohaim with a quiet power, ominously obscured by a cloth scarf. The early scene where Paul is tested plays similarly to Lynch’s version. Villeneuve opted to focus the event’s ramifications on the story rather than driving the special effects, making the scene more powerful.
Josh Brolin plays Gurney Halleck, the weapons master of House Atreides, and Jason Momoa plays Duncan Idaho, both mentors to Paul. While Momoa manages to have a bit of fun with the role and is playful, Brolin is a bit too stuffy, though I imagine when I get to the novel, I’ll find that Brolin was the right actor for the character and the film. Thufir Hawat, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, is more window dressing than a significant character in this version of the film. He lends a quiet gravitas to his role, but the story overshadows the function.
Javier Bardem’s Stilgar, whose perfunctory overtures at the beginning of the film feature the most humorous moments in an otherwise dramatic story, is a key to the second half of this story, but his presence was affecting. In a gender swap, Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays Dr. Liet-Kynes, the Imperial ecologist on Arakis, playing the character with a welcome fierceness in her interactions with Leto and Paul. Chang Chen plays Dr. Wellington Yeuh, another role that gets buried within the plot; however, Chen’s performance, like McKinley Henderson’s Thufir Hawat, lends gravitas to Yeuh’s subplot that makes him a welcome addition.
On the House Harkkonen side of this epic story, Dave Bautista plays Glossu Rabban, nephew to Baron Harkonnen, with a beefy yet understated performance. Bautista has the right dimensions, but the character’s role in this first part was smaller than the actor’s presence. I anticipate that Bautista will shine in the second part of this saga. David Dastmalchian plays Piter De Vries, Thufir’s opposite in the House Harkonnen. Dastmalchian gives the same level of quirky effort as Brad Douriff offered in Lynch’s version. For my tastes, Villeneuve nailed this casting.
Zendaya, who plays Chani, the young Fremen of Paul’s dreams, has little to do in this first part but plays an essential role in the dreams, as mentioned earlier. Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser heighten our senses with Chani’s scenes, lensing them with native IMAX 1.90:1 images; other, establishing effects scenes filmed with the native IMAX cameras and lenses are jaw-droppingly beautiful, and like Nolan’s “Interstellar,” the IMAX cameras were used appropriately.
Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is purposefully larger-than-life and is in very few scenes, yet the character is referred to frequently throughout the narrative. Aside from Chalamet, Skarsgård was the standout performance in the film. Infused with references to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Walter Kurtz, Villeneuve taps into this performance and merges it with Paul’s nomadic journey creating a vibrantly dark epic; between these two bookends, the first part of “Dune” is an epic tale of the ascension of a destiny.
“Dune” falls right in with Villeneuve’s wheelhouse. The director understood the material, some of whom have said it was unfilmable, and he created a solid start to a mythic and epic story. I would stop short of saying it is the next “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings.” “Dune” is a different kind of beast that infuses modern geopolitics (in 1965, 1984, 2021, or 10191) with humanity in its secrets and characters. The most significant stretch is in the performances, not because of the material, but because, outside of Chalamet and Skarsgård, there is a lack of theatricality in this ensemble that I found more pleasing in Lynch’s version. Concerning Villeneuve’s oeuvre, “Dune” is a better film than “Blade Runner 2049,” though set nose-to-nose with “Dune,” I have a better appreciation for what the director was attempting with “Blade Runner 2049.”
Yes, the film is playing on HBO Max; however, you would do yourself a favor by seeing “Dune” on IMAX if possible, but certainly, on the most giant screen you have access to. The detail Villeneuve achieved is beyond words and would get easily lost on a smaller screen. Hans Zimmer, who opted to do this score over “Tenet” with Christopher Nolan, was the right choice. He does repeat his signature motifs, but set against the images of a dark, nomadic journey, Zimmer shines and rivals his recent work in “No Time to Die.”
“Dune” is more significant than life, and I certainly hope that its box office take and the number of viewers on HBO Max justify its second part. “Dune” is shaped to be an event movie and is bigger than any Marvel film to date, and this movie is why theaters exist.
PG-13, 156 minutes, Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures