Cementing his standing among cinema’s finest sci-fi auteurs, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve aims for pop fantasy spectacle with his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune (★★★☆☆), and succeeds on a massive scale. It’s the film’s scale, in beauty and grandeur and impeccable detail, that’s most impressive. From towering spacecraft to the swirls of sand and spice swallowed into the gaping maws of sandworms, Herbert’s universe of interplanetary conflict between the Houses Atreides and Harkonnen is rendered in bold strokes of scope and dimension. Even across a muted palette of desert tans and stony grays, the sweeping tableaux and visual effects look amazing.
The film sounds massive, too, with dense sound design, and composer Hans Zimmer contributing an appropriately haunting score that goes heavy on the Close Encounters-style horn blares and Zimmer-style braaams. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for Villeneuve’s Arrival employed a similar sound. As with that stellar first-contact drama, Villeneuve conveys a fascination here with those moments of first contact between disparate sects and species. Also, abetted by the dynamic lensing of cinematographer Greig Fraser (The Mandalorian), he continues his effective use of tight, lingering close-ups on faces both foul and alluring.
In the latter regard, the film constitutes a parade of some of the most structurally sound mugs in the business. Oscar Isaac is a sober, serene Duke Leto Atreides, dutifully accepting his house’s role as newly-named stewards of the desert planet Arrakis, and Rebecca Ferguson, always good and especially good here, is a shrewd, serene Lady Jessica, Duke Leto’s loyal concubine and trusted advisor, and a member of the supernatural sisterhood of Bene Gesserit. Jason Momoa makes a gallant Duncan Idaho, lending the House Atreides’ fittest warrior the actor’s usual bonhomie, if not much else. For nuance, we have Charlotte Rampling, who, even enshrouded in a heavy veil and headdress, commands her close-ups with sinister authority as the not-at-all-serene Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit.
The movie’s well-hyped young leads Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya bring persuasive gravitas to their roles as Paul Atreides, heir to the House Atreides, and Chani, a warrior of the Fremen, whose home planet Arrakis is mined for its all-important “spice.” Fans of Chalamet will be pleased to see their man not only ready for his closeups, but covered from every other angle, whether waking up in bed or bounding into action to battle his enemies. Zendaya stans, on the other hand, might leave disappointed, as the Emmy-winner, while supplying stretches of the film’s voice-over narration, doesn’t appear onscreen all that much.
The plot, adapted by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth, builds towards Paul and Chani’s eventual collision, and developments suggest, along with the “Part One” opening title, that their story will continue in further adventures of Dune (Part Two is in the works). After an awesome start, establishing themes exploring the exploitation of a planet, its people, and resources, the movie’s pacing wanes under the weight of its repetitive dark mood, finally arriving at that to-be-continued conclusion.
Therein lies the film’s greater disappointment, the sense that all this visual splendor and seriousness of tone was merely set-up for whatever real action awaits down the line. Whenever that does come to pass, we can only anticipate that the next installment will do more than introduce worlds and characters, and explore beyond their brilliant surfaces to reveal deeper meaning.
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