DUNE – Movie Review

DUNE written by Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Denis Villeneuve who also directed the film is a film that everyone should see on the biggest screen they possibly can. Based on what is often considered to be the greatest science-fiction novel of all time, DUNE by Frank Herbert follows the story of Paul Atreides, the son and heir of Duke Leto Atreides and his concubine, the Lady Jessica since birth has trained her son in the ways of her religious order, the Bene Gesserit. Duke Leto is commanded by his liege lord, the Emperor of the universe to take over the desert world of Arrakis, otherwise known as Dune in order to mine the universe’s most important resource, the spice melange. While Paul might seem like a regular noble born son, what lies for him on Arrakkis might not only change him, but will change the universe forever.

 Alongside a great ensemble of  some of the best actors in the business today, Spaihts, Roth, and Villeneuve are not only able to visually recreate the world that Frank Herbert initially sub-created in his 1962 novel, but they are also able to introduce the overlaying themes that Herbert wanted to highlight textually. However, a lot of the major themes that feature in Herbert’s masterpiece are either mentioned slightly due to the time constraint or are taken out of the studio’s fear of cultural backlash wanting to approach a wider audience. Although Dune is often times bloated with exposition if you have read the book it is an amazing filmgoing experience and is a testament to why we should experience cinema in a theater with the largest possible screen one can.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides is at times brilliant in his role as the series’ main character with him being able to switch from a stoic and reflective heir to the Atreides name   with strangely prophetic dreams to the often panic stricken and frenzied prophet that he initially becomes. One of my favorite scenes in the book is also one of my favorite moments from Chalamet as he as best as he can expresses the dread and horror of seeing a billion outcomes of the universe all from one singular decision he has to make. At times, Chalamet’s Paul feels underwhelming and not as commanding as Paul is in the book after his disturbing revelations which is likely to come in part two.

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica really holds the emotional core of the film as Lady Jessica which felt very true to the characterization in the book up to the point in which the film stops at. She has the command of those around her but still has that emotional depth and trepidation that mothers have seeing their sons grow up but it’s a million times more intense.

 Jason Momoa’s warmth and charisma really establishes and builds a great relationship with Paul and the film would have benefitted if they both had more screen time together.

Stellan Skarsgard is absolutely ruthless as Baron Harkonnen and I am looking forward to seeing more of him in the second film.

As Denis Villeneuve has done in the past with adapting another beloved property with Blade Runner 2049, he is able to build the universe that both fans of the series and newcomers alike can marvel at on the big screen. Going from the abundance of water on the Atreides home world of Caladan to the stark and clean sand dunes of Arakkis, the audience is shocked into the story right from the outset. In addition to some of the most beautiful landscapes and photography I’ve ever seen on an IMAX screen, the visual effects team should also win all of the awards as they are able to take scenes, devices, vehicles, and of course the sandworms right from the page, once a feat that was thought to be unfilmable. Dune is probably the largest and loudest experience I have ever had seeing a movie let alone seeing a movie in IMAX and I highly recommend everyone to see it that way if you feel safe enough to and have your vaccine.

I’ve been waiting for this film for a long time and while I enjoyed its enormous scope and atmosphere, I can’t help but think that maybe my preparation of reading both Dune and Dune: Messiah, the sequel might have dampened my experiences watching the film. Twenty years ago in 2001, I saw the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in theaters knowing nothing of the fantasy epic and it completely changed my life and after hearing about Dune for many years as it has been compared to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in its scope, worldbuilding, and influence on the  science-fiction genre  I wanted to see what it was like for those that read the books before the Jackson trilogy had come out and part of me wished I hadn’t.

After I saw Fellowship as a kid, it sparked a passion for me in both the legendarium of Tolkien’s works and filmmaking in general. With Dune, during the film and after getting out of the theater I felt that I sabotaged myself as I felt compelled to compare what I knew from the books. I was too connected to the story and initially couldn’t let go of the expectations I built up over the last few years. Until I saw the scene that I mentioned previously with Paul and his terrifying visions of the future and then I recognized the expectations and what I was doing unlike many Star Wars fans today and let them pass through me until I was left alone with the artistry of a massive spectacle.

What distinguishes Jackson’s Fellowship and Villenuve’s Dune is it’s level of fidelity to the books in wanting to provide as much context in order to educate newcomers rather than showing them. I absolutely adore all of the details in this film, but the script felt bloated and  being too closely related to the book. Dune feels like it needs to educate the audience rather than immerse them into the world. Jumping to planet it to planet and explaining what the navigation guild is rather than just featuring them can be a lot for some viewers and having that does encumber the film a little bit. When watching Fellowship for the first time, you’re not aware of the thousands years of  events that led up to the War of the Ring or the story of Beren and Lúthien but as you see them and hear them within the story without any explanation, it makes you want to look up those who took part in those events, why they happened and how they ultimately relate to the story. By featuring and not educating, you make the audience hunger for more which is why I’m still reading Tolkien’s books and watching the Jackson trilogy twenty years later.

 While this adaptation of Dune is probably one of the most faithful adaptations of a book that I know of, the level of worldbuilding that Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Denis Villeneuve need to do for newcomers to the story makes the film start off slow and a bit overloaded with information. It’s about an hour into the film before the real themes and focus of the story really ascend from the sand. In addition to this, the catering to newcomers with certain preconceived notions also brought down the major themes and world building to smaller scope.

The universe that Frank Herbert has created has an amalgamation of our world’s major religious, socio-political, and ecological issues that are constantly at the center of the story. These are represented by MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) tradition and culture and throughout this adaptation, the physical influences are often lost or are very small. While yes there are uses of phrases like Lisan al-Gaib, Mahdi, and Shai-Hulud which all have their roots in Arabic and the clothing MENA people wear, it is often as stark as the desert when it comes to other terms and concepts like the use of jihad and actual physical representation. As far as I can tell there is very little if not any physical representation amongst the background Fremen and no representation amongst the Fremen leaders, Zendaya as Chani and Javier Bardem as Stilgar. While the lack of representation looks like it is a white washed story with Paul being the lead, Dune is not a story about white-saviors and that will be evident when the second film comes out. Paul is inspired by T.E. Lawrence, more commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia an Englishman that although had a penchant for MENA people, their languages and traditions, he ultimately participated in and some argue aided in the carving up of the Middle East leading to its resource based issues today.

The Imperium, House Harkonnen and to some extent, House Atreides are our world’s imperialist colonizers as they try to stamp their rule on the planet Arrakis and its people so they can in turn rule the universe with their control over the universe’s most valuable resource. The Imperium and the Harkonnens refuse to deal with the native population, the Fremen so much so they try to exterminate them. Knowing that they can be valuable in retaining peace and eventually will gain him untold wealth, Duke Leto tries to ally with them. When his plans descend into chaos and Jessica and Paul are left to die in the desert, they continue his plans and will soon turn their personal strife into the universe’s tragedy.

Despite a lot of exposition, not enough MENA representation, and a slight taste of Herbert’s own thematic spice, Denis Villenueve’s Dune is a masterful work of art that allows both hardcore fans and newcomers to escape to a universe they have never seen before.

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