37 years is a very long time. Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel, Dune, was first adapted in 1984 for the big screens. David Lynch directed that film. However, it was both a financial and a critical disaster at its time.
We finally have another large-screen version of Dune. Denis Villeneuve, originally set for release last November but delayed by the COVID-19 epidemic, has a strong belief that he is capable of pulling off this amazing feat. His past experience with directing thoughtful, cerebral sci-fi films like 'Arrival' or the sadly underappreciated (at the least from the mainstream perspective) 'Blade Runner 2049 speaks for itself.
Let me tell you a few things about the movie before I move on to the review. In the year 10,191 Harkonnen is the ruler of Arrakis, the desert planet. They have made huge profits through their spice-mining operations. It is also a holy hallucinogen that can prolong your life. Led by the sinister Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, in heavy makeup) along with his nephew, Rabban (Dave Bautista), he rules the planet with the iron fist and oppresses the indigenous people of Arrakis a.k.a. Fremen.
Harkonnen is no longer able to govern Arrakis. Instead, the Emperor orders Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), to take the responsibility from Caladan to House Atreides. While Duke Leto agrees, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen insists that he will not give up on his duties and will continue to seek out the best ways to lead Arrakis.
The film also focuses on Duke Leto's young son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), who has been constantly plagued with recurring visions of the future, particularly his mysterious involvement with the Fremen girl (Zendaya). He is also a warrior in training, under the tutelage of Duke’s two military advisers Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), and Gurney Hilleck (Josh Brolin), while Lady Jessica Ferguson (Rebecca Ferguson), helps him to learn the art of mind control via 'Voice.
Denis Villeneuve didn't lie when he claimed that "it has been imagined, designed, and shot thinking IMAX", during an interview at the Venice Film Festival this year. I was captivated by 'Dune' when I watched it on IMAX. It is cinematic, and you might want to watch it in person rather than streaming on TV. Villeneuve values practical effects more than CGI. The latter can only enhance scenes. Much like in 'Blade Runner 2049’, Villeneuve's practical and pragmatic approach to filmmaking makes the experience even more real. The large-scale sets, props, and desert planet Arrakis were all shot on location in Jordan. The CGI sandworm, no matter its speed or size, is physically intimidating.
Patrice Vermette's amazing production design and Greig's technical wizardry in cinematography give 'Dune" an added boost. Hans Zimmer's well-known musical score that invokes an atmosphere of dread and fear is used extensively throughout the film. His score is sometimes too loud for some scenes but it is hard not to see how Zimmer's effort has a large impact on grabbing the viewer's attention while watching the film.
It's a mixed bag of action. The earlier scenes, such as Paul's and Gurney’s shield-enabled bladefight training and daring rescue scene, are excellent in terms of the overall staging and tension. However, once most of the action is in the darkness (as evident by the ambush on Harkonnen's army of House Atreides), the film loses its kinetic flair. Also, it is inadvisable to film action setspieces in darkened or low-light environments. These scenes are often hard to see and understand, which makes it difficult for viewers to fully appreciate the setpiece. This made me feel frustrated, as Villeneuve clearly has the ability to improve in this area. Perhaps it is budgetary worries, even though Villeneuve's film has an estimated $165 million in its bank account.
Villeneuve is able to weave his story with ease, despite the fact that it was filled with unnecessary expositions. Villeneuve is a master at grabbing your attention. It instantly brings back memories of Villeneuve's similar strategy from Blade Runner 2049. Next, we have the star cast. Timothée Chalamet is perfectly typecast as a conflicted young man, who is unsure of his own destiny. Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson are solidly supported by Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Josh Brolin, and Jason Momoa. Stellan Skarsgård, in the meantime, channels the late Marlon Brando-like Colonel Kurtz from 'Apocalypse Now' in his antagonist role as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.
Unfortunately, not enough time is given to some actors for their roles. Javier Bardem is the Fremen's leader Stilgar. Zendaya as one Fremen's fighter-fighter warriors is underutilized. Dave Bautista's wasted time is the same as that of Baron’s nephew Rabban.
If we can overlook the shortcomings in the film, Dune is still a marvellous achievement. David Lynch attempted and failed to do it 35 years earlier. It will be determined if the movie is able to finish the story. (Villeneuve divides 'Dune.') This all depends on how much it grosses. A cliffhanger at the end of 'Dune' will leave us with many unanswered questions.
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