DUNE review by Mark Walters – Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Frank Herbert’s story is a grand one

DUNE review by Mark Walters – Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Frank Herbert’s story is a grand one

David Lynch’s DUNE has been the definitive visual representation for many since its theatrical release in the mid 80s, but hardcore fans of the books by Frank Herbert argued with its interpretation and storytelling, much of which was edited for time. Since then we’ve seen televised attempts at the narrative, but many hoped for a big screen redo, and now we’re finally getting it. Thanks to director Denis Villeneuve (BLADE RUNNER 2049), Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ new DUNE promises to be more of what fans hoped for, even if said to only be the first part of the story… people are going to need to show up in droves if we want a sequel here, folks. The impressive cast includes Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, David Dastmalchian, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem. Villeneuve directed DUNE from a screenplay he co-wrote with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth based on the novel of the same name written by Frank Herbert. Oscar-winning and multiple Oscar-nominated composer Hans Zimmer provides the score, and that by itself (for some) is worth the price of admission.

If you don’t know the basic story of DUNE by now, the easiest summary would be as follows… taken directly from the studio’s notes. A mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey, DUNE tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, who must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence — a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential — only those who can conquer their fear will survive.

The story shifts around to different planets and cultures, with the House of Atreides seeming like the most normal of the bunch, even if they are quite regal, and it is perhaps their status and prestige that makes them an annoying presence to the evil and somewhat mad Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), who here is portrayed less flamboyant and loud than he was in the Lynch take, and more like something akin to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in APOCALYPSE NOW… there’s even a scene in the film where he’s rubbing his head like that classic Brando scene in Coppola’s film. Timothée Chalamet was cast as the leading man, Paul Atreides, who we mostly see the story elements from, and sadly he is the one undeniable weak point of this new production. Chalamet’s screen presence just isn’t engaging, and his reading of every line he’s given comes off as bland and uninspired. Villeneuve faced a similar problem with casting the overly stoic Ryan Gosling in BLADE RUNNER 2049. I realize Chalamet (like Gosling) has a strong fan base and I’ll undoubtedly get some hate mail or hateful comments for not praising him more, but I just feel like he’s a poor choice to play Paul here. His weak reading is particularly evident when held next to other rather competent actors who make up the film. Many in the cast do a phenomenal job with the material, and at times help elevate the scenes they’re in to make the film feel grand and almost operatic. Oscar Isaac is strong as Duke Leto Atreides, and Rebecca Feguson is quite good as Lady Jessica Atreides, though I would have liked more scenes with them together as they’re sadly separated by the needs of the story. Jason Momoa will easily become a fan-favorite as Duncan Idaho, Paul’s friend and resident military bad-ass. He gets some fun dialogue, and killer action scenes, perhaps the best within the film. Josh Brolin is also solid as Gurney, Paul’s older mentor and the House of Atreides military advisor.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag of strong performances, and at times missed opportunities for cinematic greatness. Dave Bautista plays Beast Rabban Harkonnen, the lead assassin for Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron, and isn’t given too much to do here other than slaughter innocents and yell at the Baron when concerned, and is sadly overshadowed by Skarsgård’s commanding presence in their various scenes. I was excited to see David Dastmalchian in the film, but he’s also not given much to do other that occasionally sound off as an advisor to the Baron. One of the other big selling points of the film for younger audiences is Zendaya as Chani, the woman haunting Paul’s dreams and one he’ll eventually meet in person as the story wraps up its first chapter. She’s intriguing enough in the role, but like many in the film has too little dialogue or character development to make her role terribly memorable. Charlotte Rampling is excellent as the creepy Reverend Mother Mohiam, and makes the classic scene testing Paul’s pain threshold one of the standout moments in the film. Javier Bardem adds some gravitas to the proceedings as a potential resistance ally to the Atreides family, but also has only brief scenes that are mostly held for the final act. I won’t go through the rest of the supporting cast, though everyone seems to be giving it their all, even when the material isn’t giving them much to work with.

DUNE is a very dense story, and I applaud director Denis Villeneuve for attempting to tackle it in a new way. The end result is visually spectacular and at times incredibly breathtaking, sporting mind-blowing special effects and superb costume design. There are some aesthetics that are familiar, especially if you have the David Lynch DUNE in mind, but most of what’s on display is unique and original. The blending of CGI and live action is so flawless, there were moments where I was almost chuckling to myself about how ‘perfect’ everything looked. Let’s just say this, EVERY dollar is on the screen, and if this film loses money, it’s not for a lack of effort by everyone who worked on it… particularly in the production design and special effects departments. The score by Hans Zimmer does not disappoint either, it’s emotional and moving, and gives the visuals an epic quality even in the most quiet of moments.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in this DUNE is the pacing, which at times moves really, really slow. There’s a lot of talky scenes that don’t seem to expand the narrative enough to feel completely necessary, making the action moments of the piece a welcome treat. This is a production that feels LONG, even going into it knowing it is long, clocking in at two hours and 35 minutes. I’ll be honest, as excited as I was to finally see the film, there were a couple of moments where I almost fell asleep due to the lack of anything on screen past lengthy conversation… and I realize a lot of the exposition is there for a reason, but it might help for them to cinch up the dialogue a bit should they get a chance to make a sequel. I genuinely want to see Villeneuve film Book Two as I want to see how he handles the rest of this story, so much so that I can forgive most of this film’s shortcomings. There are lessons to be learned here for sure, but I’d still wager Villeneuve’s cinematic vision is one of the most incredible you’ll likely see this year. Not unlike his previous effort to revive an old Sci-Fi franchise with BLADE RUNNER 2049, this new DUNE is a visual masterpiece, hindered only by heavy dialogue and sometimes wooden characters… but man oh man is it stunning to look at.

DUNE is now scheduled to open in theaters on October 22, 2021

Be Sociable, Share!

About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.