The son of a powerful duke receives visions of the future as his family takes control of a vital and contested planet.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, and Oscar Isaac
Review by Jon Kissel
Within that recognizable hero’s journey, Villeneuve and co-writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts pull off the magic trick of not boring the viewer to death with made-up words and exposition. Something like Tenet and most MCU movies bury themselves in exposition and terminology, while Dune is just as dense, if not moreso. However, the core idea behind the vocabulary and terminology is communicated clearly and, crucially, the delivery of exposition is done naturally. Why wouldn’t a curious Paul watch anthropological about the Fremen natives of Arrakis? The shield suits that everyone wears are a little fuzzy, but Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) scraping a dart off his suit before it drills into his flesh is as clear a physical descriptor of how they work as possible. The more thematic beats, especially the bull head that follows the Atreides from their home planet to their doom on Arrakis, get a single line and a few shots, but the point is conveyed without hammering it home. The mysticism of this world remains something of a mystery, as are Paul’s visions of a bloody holy war, but that’s what Part II is for. He should be in the dark as much as the viewer is.
A comfortable arc taking place in a rich and detailed world gets Dune to respectability. What elevates it further are the naked comparisons to modern life. This is an allegory not only of the era when Herbert first wrote it, but of every period since. What could a hotly contested desert resource, coveted by the great powers and exploited at the expense of the native population and ultimately the whole civilization, mean for the real world? Again, Dune’s appearance of opacity and impenetrable detail is easily graspable. Things get more interesting in the way the story ranks its imperialist exploiters. The Harkonnens, led by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgard), are the picture of brutal overlords with their black armor and alien depilated appearances. Paul’s father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) imagines himself as a partner to the Fremen, despite them never asking for nor needing a partner. Whether cruel or paternalistic, domination of Arrakis is an impossibility in the moral universe of Dune, and the assumption is that Paul will succeed by assimilating with the Fremen and furthering their interest first instead of those of House Atreides. That all of this will be driven by a psychoactive drug cements Dune as a product of its time, even as the political lesson is evergreen.
Herbert’s vision of an interstellar future involves a reversion to feudal political arrangements, and Villeneuve capitalizes with his particular visual style. The great medieval cathedrals were built to overwhelm the illiterate masses with the glory of the state church, and there’s a lot of overwhelming happening here. Most of the film’s characters are the privileged lords and ladies of the universe’s great houses, and to watch Dune is to be cowed by their displays of power. Villeneuve’s last several films have all had their scenes of impassive might embodied by architecture, but none more than here. The space ships are either boxy or sleek, but they’re all huge and have a considered sense of power residing inside them. Sardaukar troop formations are exactly spaced and move in unison. Imperial rituals take place loudly and with pomp and circumstance. Harkonnen battleships rain what seems like impervious and unavoidable fire down on Arakeen. The appearance of strength is mirrored in how the Harkonnens especially wield their power, which is to say ruthlessly. Their forces are operating on such a huge scale that things like mercy and justice have no meaning, and so many scenes in Dune are like coming into contact with something unknowable and uncaring.
Of course, the lizard brain appeal is also there in Dune, a film with no shortage of cool shit. Every use of the Voice is incredible. A technique taught to Paul by his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) who is herself a member of the prophetic Bene Gesserit sisterhood, Villeneuve’s use of sound is indelible and surprising each time. As Paul gains new Fremen powers, hopefully the Voice stays in his repertoire. He’ll surely learn to ride on the giant sandworms who make Arrakis so dangerous, and each of their appearances is more memorable than the last. The fear mantra has entranced decades worth of high school kids for a reason. The way that troops get dropped into battle with no visible tethers or thrusters is ghostly and simple, and unexplained because it doesn’t need to be. Small things like Baron Harkonnen’s levitator or his oil bath are also not lingered on, serving instead as details that make the world fuller and more interesting. Dune is a film with rewatchability because it’s stuffed with small things amongst the huge set pieces, and both have their considerable charms.
Charm isn’t the name of the game for Chalamet, who plays Paul as the heavily-burdened chosen one. Villeneuve doesn’t put jokes in his films, and while Chalamet isn’t as robotic as Ryan Gosling in the earlier Blade Runner 2049, he is another humorless protagonist for a director who likes that trait in his leads. His stoic nature isn’t a portentous misfire, though, because the film allows Paul’s mask to break and a withering Chalamet that then builds himself back up is a strong mode for the young actor. His Paul communicates competence as well as potential, and there’s some vulnerability in there, too. It’s great to see Isaac back to playing meaningful roles after being stuck in Star Wars purgatory, and though this is another big sci-fi project, it still manages to justify his gravitas. I believe that Rebecca Ferguson can perhaps make people cut their own throats if she told them to, so this role might not be much of a stretch for her. Momoa is bursting with action movie charisma, Skarsgard and Dave Bautista as his nephew are different versions of the same chilling villain, and Javier Bardem as a Fremen leader is perfectly calm and dismissive of non-Fremen ways. Zendaya’s Chani, another Fremen that Paul sees in his dreams, will get much more screentime in Part II, but she and Bardem are both well-cast based on how they convey a confidence in their way of doing things.
What keeps Dune from being more than the very good movie that it is is its inherent nature as a chosen one narrative and its inability to engage with the trippier parts of the story. The film could transcend the limits of the former in the future. To its credit, this does not seem like the kind of chosen one story where our heroes dance with cuddly Ewoks at the end. Paul’s visions are already shown to be faulty, and his growing understanding of his role in the deaths of millions or more will add a rueful quality that’s unimaginable in something like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. On the latter, there’s just no way that Villeneuve is capable of stepping outside of his formalist box. He has yet to demonstrate any kind of potential for psychodrama, including in Enemy which would’ve been the film of his that most called for it. To repeat, I have a strong suspicion that Dune is ultimately about LSD saving the universe, and the mind at the helm is perhaps the least appropriate major director to handle that angle. That said, the director most appropriate for that, David Lynch, has had a crack at Dune and has disavowed it. Maybe in 2040, when some other director tries to reboot the franchise, that person will be capable of both the grandeur that Villeneuve is so good at and the strangeness that he’s incapable of. In the meantime, the grandeur will have to do. B+