By The Wiz
Denis Villenueve’s long awaited attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s iconic science fiction novel Dune officially landed in theaters and HBO Max this weekend and people are understandably excited. Over the last decade, Villenueve cemented his place among the top directors in Hollywood with films like Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049. Those films ran the gamut from Lynchian Thrillers to sprawling Sci-Fi neo-noir, but all featured an ever present visual style and storytelling that only Villenueve could possess. When it was announced that he would be directing Dune, the common response was that only he could do the book justice. Not only is Dune his passion project, but few to no other directors could capture the depth and weight of the story like Villenueve. Most importantly, the book has long been considered unadaptable not only because of its scale but the depth of its story.
Dune as a story is a lot of things. It is a story about political manipulation and the fallacies of myth making. It is a story about the environment and how it needs to be kept safe. The story even serves as an allegory for the West’s desire to control the Middle East, and in turn, oil production. Plenty of one to one comparisons can be made in Dune and real life, but that is for the audience to realize when watching it. At its simplest form, Dune is Game of Thrones on a galactic scale. Two great houses among the many have a disdain for each other and it's at the point where blood will be drawn. Those tensions created the Atreides move off their home planet of Caladan to Arrakis, also known as Dune. That is all the crumbs I’ll give about the plot, but how is the film?
To start, I’m going to try and give away zero plot points in this review. It is better to watch the movie than try and have it explained before watching. Dune is ethereal, smart Sci-Fi not a Christopher Nolan Sci-Fi film.
I will also make it clear that I am a massive fan of Denis Villenueve’s work. I think he is arguably the best director working today and all his films are very high quality. He is on one of the hottest streaks in movie making right now and Dune was the ultimate test. How did Dune fair though?
The first thing that becomes apparent when watching Dune is the scale of the film. Whether someone watches it in the theater or at home, the grandeur this film presents is unlike 99% of the films released today. Many of the desert scenes were filmed in Wadi Rum, a filming location made famous by Lawrence of Arabia and the Star Wars movies. Even when shots were done in indoor areas, none of the major sets were CGI. There is one specific scene in the second act of the film that was done on soundstages because Villenueve insisted on using real sets. Truthfully, that only makes the scene in question better. The depth and scale of the action feels right, unlike many of the third act Marvel CGI-fests. Whether it be a battle, a creature, a spaceship, or a person and their environment, Dune perfectly shows the true wonder that scale can produce in film.
Then, there is the score. Despite being one of the most iconic composers this century, Hans Zimmer has not won an Oscar since his win for The Lion King in 1995. But what he did with Dune’s score may finally land him that elusive second Oscar. It not only helps drive emotion in the film, but in turn, it amplifies the aforementioned grandeur. In its own unique way, it is a character in the film. Instead of trumpets and brass, Zimmer utilized electronic instruments, bagpipes, and voices (among other things) to craft his “alien”-like score. Pieces like “Ripples in Sand”, “Burning Palms” and “Ornithopter” only prove that point further. It is one of the few scores in recent memory where the music paired with the image gave me chills while watching the film. This is one of the more non-traditional scores you will ever hear, yet, it works wonders inside the film.
The acting as well is fairly good. While mainly centered around one character, the ensemble cast does everything and more. Some actors get changed from their parts in the book, some get little because they will show up more in Part Two and then there is the core crew. Oscar Issac is a perfect casting choice as he carries the nobility and the burden his character needs. Rebeca Furgeson plays her part to a tee as a motherly, but powerful figure. Stellan Skarsgard is a wonderfully villainous Baron Valdimir Harkonnen. But the film rests safely on Timothée Chalamet's shoulders. He manages to not only capture the childishness, but the intelligence and eventual internal nature of Paul. When the second part eventually comes, it’ll be interesting to see how his character progresses.
Dune (Part 1) is a reminder of the power and scale movies can have. Director Denis Villeneuve and company put together a modern cinematic epic that will be remembered by Dune book fans and normal movie fans alike. Hans Zimmer’s expansive score will be one of the key points people will remember from this film. Expect Dune to receive tons of award nominations and plenty of Best Director buzz. Finally, if you can, please see Dune in a theater. I know it comes out on HBO Max, but if you feel comfortable and have the time/means to do it, see Dune in theaters. It will be worth it, trust me.