‘Dune’ Review: Careful With That Spice, Paul

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Dune, director Denis Villenueve's ambitious attempt to deliver a sprawling science fiction epic matching the legacy of the best-selling novel.
User Rating: 9

Facing off against a massive level of anticipation in terms of audience expectation and the prospect of fulling certain financial hopes, Dune has a lot riding on it. Despite being handled by one of the biggest movie studios, having a huge budget to work with, and featuring the work of some of the most talented filmmakers and mainstream actors currently out there, it’s incredible how a few specific choices could make or break such a film, let alone turn off the masses of people looking for great spectacle. Fortunately, Dune absolutely delivers on its promises and then some. This is a visually spectacular feature that I found myself fully immersed in.

Based on Frank Herbert’s best-selling sci-fi novel from 1965, this film is “Part One” of a presumed two-part story. Set far in the future, the plot revolves around the fallout from Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) accepting the stewardship of the dangerous desert planet Arrakis (aka Dune). This planet is the source of spice, a valuable substance that motivates those who would see House Atreides fall. At the center of this is the Duke’s son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet), who possesses certain abilities that may prove him to be some kind of savior to both his people and the Fremen tribe who make up the native population of Arrakis.

It would be an understatement to say there’s a lot more going on here, as Herbert’s novel (and subsequent sequels) is known for being dense material focused on royal dynasties, religion, and intergalactic globalization, among other things. It is a large credit to director/co-writer Denis Villeneuve and co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth that Dune is not a film suffocated by its world-building or the number of characters. In a time where the complexities of HBO’s Game of Thrones are a treat to audiences around the world, and Marvel Studios can get away with relying on audiences to easily understand new references to previous entries in their 20+ film series, Dune should not be a difficult film to track by comparison.

That’s not to say this film doesn’t feature an ample supply of exposition, but Dune is structured in such a way that the information given comes with so much reward, whether it’s thanks to the talented cast making the material engaging or through the gorgeous visuals on display (DP Greig Fraser and the special effects team completely understood the assignment), which fully-realize the worlds we are inhabiting. I understand as much about the character hierarchy as I do the wonderfully designed flying machines that resemble dragonflies. This is a rich film, and Villeneuve’s fandom for the novel shows in how much reverence he brings to this presentation.

It is one thing to merely explain the nature of this universe, introduce some characters, and let visual effects do the rest of the talking. This film finds a lot of spiritual focus in how it follows Paul’s journey. Dune, among other things, is a coming-of-age tale. Paul’s emergence from his youth means understanding the discourse that comes with tribalism, being quick to think but not too quick to comprehend a situation, and being ready to resolve conflicts by any means necessary.

A role such as this could easily be rendered dull, as we are watching a “chosen one” narrative that requires mostly reactive actions compared to the flashier characters surrounding them. Chalamet manages to do a lot with Paul, beyond just emote through his floppy hair. As the central character, he brings a spiritedness to the role without filling Paul with too much angst or naivety. He also plays well with the many other cast members. This notably speaks for Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother, Jason Momoa as the wonderfully named Duncan Idaho, a swordmaster and mentor, and Zendaya as a mysterious woman Paul has only had visions about before finally encountering her.

The stories around Paul all have their own levels of intrigue as well. For Isaac’s Duke Atreides, we watch a man do what he thinks is right for his House while serving an emperor asking a lot of him. Isaac does plenty to show that Leto is a warm and fair man, but one with experience. On the other side is Stellan Skarsgard’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a literal beast of a man who can defy gravity. This is a character made out of various aspects of villainy, all designed to be repulsive. And yet, the control he has over his House, as well as those he has made arrangements with, makes him a force worth paying attention to.

The rest of this all-star cast is well-equipped to deliver what’s needed, whether it’s the rugged nature of Javier Bardem’s Stilgar, the hot-tempered attitude of Dave Bautista’s Glossu Rabban, the iciness of Charlotte Rampling’s truthsayer, or the calm and collected disposition of Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s Dr. Liet-Kynes. A film of this kind needs to have a lot of recognizable faces to help bring audiences in. To Dune’s advantage, this cast is more than capable, incredibly diverse, and clear on the film’s mood.

When considering what is taking place in this first half of a longer story, it’s clear one can only do so much with what is essentially a tragedy of epic proportions. With a clear trajectory meant for Paul, while not necessarily unpredictable, there is a need for certain levels of drama to ensue for this story to build its momentum. Does that mean Dune has no time to be anything less than serious? I would not say so. While Villeneuve’s films do not rely on levity to make the stories more comforting, that doesn’t mean there is no fun to be had.

I was impressed with how this movie could be so devoted to properly representing the worlds and people while still working as genuine entertainment. It has a level of scope, allowing for major, spectacle-filled moments, exhilarating action, and genuine thrills that combine elements of wonder and suspense. And, yes, this is also a movie featuring giant sandworms. Finding a way to encompass so much without ever feeling too convoluted or out of its depth in conveying any level of emotion is the sort of accomplishment any blockbuster filmmaker should aspire to having done.

At two and a half hours, the film finds a deliberate way of moving, whether that means having room to breathe or keeping a breakneck pace, as we watch characters wrestle through unprecedented circumstances for the sake of survival. Combined with a specific structure for the sake of having a stopping point, one of my main takeaways was that I need the rest of this, and soon.

I can only speculate on what the rest of this story will bring (I have not read the novel, and the David Lynch film makes its own choices). However, I wonder how the complete story will deal with the variety of themes and ideas introduced in this first film. The power dynamics are intriguing and a reflection of how little things change when it comes to stories concerning who is in charge and who wants to be. Whether relating this to the Crusades or a more modern take involving western cultures invading and stripping the Middle East, it’s easy to see the parallels being drawn.

One can also use the movie to understand how religious appropriation has led to specific points of view for some characters while being a true believer informs others. And, of course, the idea of harvesting natural resources from a particular region, and the devastating effects that has on all involved, speaks to so much that is happening today. Does this film adequately address every one of those themes with a level of nuanced depth that can be analyzed for weeks at a time? That’s a bit beyond the point.

At the end of the day, Dune functions as pulp fiction. It happens to have a prestige quality, but this film does not need to act above its sci-fi elements. That said, it really helps that it is not a victim of sci-fi trappings. Even with a narrative surrounding a “Special” hero that will ideally save everything, Dune is a sprawling epic made with a level of confidence afforded to those who truly earn the right to use experimental choir voices provided by Hans Zimmer’s excellent original score. Of course, Dune is much more than sounds that push the envelope and sandworms. This is an experience worth its weight in spice.

Dune opens in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22, 2021.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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