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Movie Review: Dune – Part I (2021) – no spoilers

Written by on October 22, 2021

An almost-perfect cinema masterpiece that combines all its elements into a wondrous and distinct movie experience
– by Willy Canuck

Dune has long been one of the most-read, least-successfully adapted books of all time.  While David Lynch’s original entry in 1984 still holds cult status amongst many Dune and Sci-fi fans, most will argue that it was a ‘creative’ interpretation at best yet it did produce some stunning visuals about the world of Arrakis and the relentless hostility of its deserts – and the battle to control them.

Somewhat more successful was the TV mini-series ‘Frank Herbert’s Dune’ directed by John Harrison which allowed a longer runtime to tell the rich story of the universe in the year 10191.  While the mini-series was highly restricted on budget for visuals, Harrison’s clever use of theatrical lighting and strong editing brought out much more of the story and character development that was extremely lacking in Lynch’s feature film.

So it comes as no surprise that, despite a length of over 2.5 hours, Denis Villeneuve’s attempt certainly has its shortcomings (It is ‘Dune’ after all) – yet it still combines the best pieces of previous attempts and gloriously succeeds at creating a cinematic experience that movie fans will talk about for a long, long time.

The Story Itself

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When Denis Villeneuve originally pitched the idea of a new adaptation to Warner Bros, the first challenge was convincing the studio to invest in a big-budget production that would only cover half of the story.  You have indeed read correctly that this film is merely ‘Part I’ of a 2-part adaptation and that has left many critics and new fans a bit confused and frustrated as the film finishes quite inconclusively.

There is a risk in this approach as the returns at the box office will largely dictate whether Part II will ever be given the green light.  Although I can safely say it deserves that – it largely depends on whether the mainstream movie audience agrees that Villeneuve’s vision of a rather niche science-fiction story is worthy of its concluding chapter.

This all comes back to the story itself which is a rich tapestry of politics, vendettas and prophecies.  It is an absolutely engaging story to follow and Denis Villeneuve has certainly done the book justice.  As a fan himself, Villeneuve was fully invested in creating a cinematic spectacle that would wow audiences but still hold true to its core material.

If you are a long-time fan of Dune, rest assured there’s no creative deviations from the story here.  All the key conversations are intact with a little bit of direction flair – although this is certainly a different take on the book which does not attempt to replicate earlier adaptations.

If you’re new to Dune, Villeneuve does an excellent job in introducing the story in a way that focuses on the critical elements of the book which won’t leave you feeling disadvantaged alongside long-term fans.  However, it is this focus to pack in enough detail into a theatrical release which highlights the true enemy of Villeneuve’s film: time.

Despite being split into two parts, this first part still feels a bit lacking in key moments that feature in previous entries.  The good news is that Villeneuve is reported to have a ‘Director’s Cut’ which will undoubtedly fill in a lot of this missing material – but if its down to the Director and the Producers to use a delicate carving knife to trim a film into its intended runtime, there is a stink of Studio intervention that swapped that knife for a hammer and chisel.

So it would seem that while Warner Bros was happy enough (ultimately) for Villeneuve to begin with a ‘Part I’, they were not happy for this film to run longer than 3 hours.  It’s a balance of risk and returns – so I get the underlying reason – but it did have me thinking by the end that I didn’t get to see the whole film.

My daughter, however, enjoyed it immensely and had no prior experience or knowledge of Dune in written or cinematic form; good news for anyone who wants to bring along a friend, family member or date to this epic picture.  There is plenty to keep everyone happy, fans and newbies alike.

Acting

The hype surrounding Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ began as announcements of its incredible cast came to light.  In this ensemble cast of well-proven actors, any movie fan will be impressed by the shear power of notable names involved in the film.  However, the results are somewhat surprising in the theatrical cut that seems to focus heavily on some characters and leaves other big names a bit left out of the limelight.

On the ‘good guy’ side, you have relative newcomer Timothy Chalamet as the most controversial choice for ‘Paul Atreides’.  I’m happy to report that Chalamet absolutely delivers in this role and easily outshines previous performances as Paul.  Additional strong performances are provided by Josh Brolin (Guerney), Oscar Isaac (Leto) and Rebecca Ferguson who really steal the stage for the bulk of the film.  If you had any doubts over anything of these castings, put them aside.

In particular, Rebecca Ferguson as the Lady Jessica was arguably the best performance in the entire film and certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination.  On the fringe, there were good deliveries from Jason Mamoa as Duncan Idaho (probably his best ever performance) and Javier Bardem who shines as Stilgar.

On the ‘bad guy’ side, it’s a bit more mixed but possibly as a result of the theatrical cut.  I was excited to learn that Dave Bautista would play the evil Raban but felt like Bautista never really had much screen time in this first part.  Likewise, Stellan Skarsgård as the sadistic Baron certainly does the character justice but appears only intermittently throughout the film.

In a movie that very much focuses on the good guys and the things happening to them, the rich and colourful material of evil characters contained within the story takes a bit of a back seat apart from where critical moments require their input.  Hopefully this might be rectified by a Director’s Cut in the future, because I would certainly love to see Bautista and Skarsgård expand their portrayals as Raban and the Baron respectively.

All that being said, there is nothing to complain about with regards to the cast; quite the contrary, in fact; the entire cast does a tremendous job in bringing a this character-rich tale to life and is due a standing ovation for their ensemble effort.

Visuals

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The only word I could use to describe Villeneuve’s Dune echoed through my mind time and time again while I was watching: ‘Stunning’.  Despite the shortcomings in the story elements, there is no doubt that this film is one of the most finely-crafted and visually impactful science fiction experiences of all time.  If you consider that the last film I saw in the Cinema was ‘The Last Jedi’ (yes it’s been that long for me), it’s quite amazing that Dune completely blows away anything brought to the table by J.J. Abrams.

For me, Villeneuve’s Dune stands proudly with the science-fiction great moments in Cinema alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars: A New Hope and The Matrix.  Dune is colourful, powerful, overwhelming at times and ultimately one of the best science-fiction films I have ever laid eyes on.  The costumes are spectacular, combining both the visual impact of Lynch’s 1984 film while incorporating the pragmatic and organic nature of Harrison’s mini-series.

The special effects are also equally if not more spectacular; casting the monstrous scale of landing ships, armies and giant worms that envelope the experience in an almost continuous sense of awe and wonder.  The set design is  spot-on and really looks the part in every phase of the story; there are no liberties taken here, just a keen focus on being true to the story itself. During its high-tension moments, Villeneuve doesn’t hold back in whacking you in the face with visual sequences that are completely breathtaking.

..and then there’s the Ornithopters!  For the first time ever in adapting Dune, Villeneuve has finally found a way to translate the small aircraft of Dune which were always meant to have flapping wings.  Rather than a bird, however,  Villeneuve opts for an insect look instead and creates something akin to a ‘Battle Dragonfly’ that has the look and behaviour of an insect while providing the visual and audio presence of a heavily-armed attack helicopter.

The Ornithopters, thankfully, are heavily-featured in the film and with good reason: there are incredibly cool!  For those of you waiting in agony for the release of Top Gun: Maverick, there’s a few fixes to be had in Dune with some wonderful flying sequences that really augment the film to amazing levels for aviation fans.

Sound

In addition to the amazing sound-crafting for the Orthopters, the audio experience of Dune is second-to-none and many future directors will take cues from what has happened in the fantastic collaboration between Denis Villeneuve and Hans Zimmer.  Sound effects are powerful and effective.  Music is pure magic.  At every moment, all come together in perfect harmony to support the visual experience in a rich tapestry of sound and light.

As I sit here thinking, I cannot think of ANY film that has done this as effectively as Villeneuve’s Dune.  When talking about films, people often discuss the sound effects, the music or the visual effects as separate things – but in the case of Dune, it is so perfectly interwoven that its hard to breakdown the experience into its individual components.   Even the story mechanic of ‘the voice’ is powerfully rendered and will have you jumping in your seat.

With due credit to the Sound Engineers, Villeneuve and Zimmer have raised the bar on cinema forever….and it’s worth saying that this is unlike any Hans Zimmer soundtrack you have ever heard because it is so perfectly matched to each sequence.  It blends into the background and becomes part of the overall experience, making full use of surround effects as an immersion tool rather than shock or novelty.  The result is a soundtrack that envelopes you like a warm blanket from start to finish.

For those of you familiar with Villeneuve’s ‘Blade Runner 2049’, you will see elements of Villeneuve’s use of music and sound applied here; but where as Blade Runner 2049 was Villeneuve’s ‘dry run’ – Dune takes it to another level completely and smashes every expectation about what a soundtrack should be.

Conclusion

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If you are a fan, or have even the slightest interest in seeing Dune, Go See It (quite frankly).  This is not one of those ‘i’ll wait for the video release’ moments – and  you will regret the decision for years to come.  Dune is incredible – and worthy of your time and your money to visit the Movie Theatre.

For anyone remotely interested in science-fiction – even on the peripheral – Dune sets a new standard in both film-making and audio/visual spectacle that will forever stay in your memory.  A film this well-made deserves to be seen in its natural habitat: the Big Screen.

Dune is – in a word – Stunning.

Story – (4/5)
Acting – (5/5)
Visuals – (5/5)
Sound – (5/5)
Overall – (5/5)


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