Dune movie review: Denis Villeneuve brings the thrill of a theme park and also the emotional depth of one

  • Dune movie review: Denis Villeneuve's third sci-fi film is also is only disappointing one yet. With a star-studded cast, he is unable to make you care about any of them.
Dune movie review: Timothee Chalamet plays Paul Atreides.
Dune movie review: Timothee Chalamet plays Paul Atreides.
Updated on Oct 22, 2021 08:39 PM IST
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It’s almost blinding, the effect that Greig Fraser’s sprawling visuals in Dune have on you. Hans Zimmer’s gargantuan music could make you believe you are watching a once-in-a-lifetime event unfold in front of your eyes. However, despite all this help, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune still evaporates from the mind as little as two hours later. Sandy worms and dragonfly choppers can only do so much when there isn’t a big, beating heart in a film to tether yourself.

With Dune, Denis Villeneuve took on the behemoth task (also often deemed impossible) of bringing Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi epic to the big screen. Denis was the (latest) man for the job. With his last two sci-fi films, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, he had successfully proven that he can bring big ideas to a glorious, gorgeous life, even ones embedded deep into the pop culture psyche by Ridley Scott himself. But aside from the lessons in linguistics and a call to embrace the neon aesthetic, these films also asked questions about the cost of a moment of happiness and the flimsy definition we give to being human. Dune, however, has not been able to inspire any questions in me. Unless I really want to get into the aerodynamics of the aforementioned dragonfly chopper.

Watch Dune trailer:

Dune opens with a very optimistic (and reasonable) title card that lets you know that this will only be ‘part one’ of the saga. Set in the year 10191, the film presents itself as the coming-of-age story of one Paul Atreides, played by Timothee Chalamet with his usual curls and arresting eyes. In a world still obsessed with imperialism and fiefdoms, his father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has been given charge of an unruly planet, called Arrakis. With its sand that ‘gets everywhere’, menacing sandworms that can dwarf even a blue whale, scorching sun that can cook you alive, it’s not really going to be a vacation for the family.

Also read: Arrival review: A modern masterpiece. It will never be forgotten. 5 stars.

Regardless, under the suspicious orders of a ‘jealous’ emperor, the duke, his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), their son and their entire clan must leave for Arrakis at once and harvest from its sand a rare element, called ‘the Spice’. It’s the most valuable resource in this universe, one that makes interstellar travel and mind control possible.

There are prophecies looming in the spicy air too. Paul is also supposed to be ‘The One’. Able to control minds with his voice, just like his Bene Gesserit mother, he might also be the one that delivers Arrakis’ blue-eyed natives, the Fremen, from centuries of subjugation and exploitation at the hands of dukes, barons and emperors, all for their land and their spice. The parallels to our 21st-century world are bright as day for anyone to realise. Women in hijab, the arid scenery, the dearth of water and the obsession with fuel are all familiar to us and more so to the people that this century has wronged. But judging by what we have seen so far, it wouldn’t be fair to assume whether Denis really imagines his white hero to save the natives. So I shall reserve that disappointment for a later time.

Anyway, apologies for the last three paras of exposition dump but if you plan to watch Dune this weekend, consider this a soft precursor to the same. In a world so densely packed with new ideas, language, mythology of its own, and a fully functioning social structure, expositions can’t be avoided. Denis also takes his sweet time to build his world, with ambient royal ceremonies by the lake, lingering scenes of deadly futuristic mosquitoes’ attack and glam shots of choppers, excavators and hot air balloons. However, the relationships between any of the characters never get enough attention to register a difference when men and women fall in battle. There is something not right about feeling more emotions and adrenaline rushing through your veins at the flapping of a helicopter’s wings rather than watching a hero sacrifice himself for a friend.

Dune: Oh, there is Javier Bardem in it too!
Dune: Oh, there is Javier Bardem in it too!

Also read: Blade Runner 2049 movie review: Like The Dark Knight, one of the greatest sequels ever made. 5 stars

Young Paul greets his friends with affection and hugs every time. Josh Brolin’s Gurney Halleck gets an entire one-on-one training scene with Paul, Jason Momoa’s spirited fighter Duncan gets a hug from him, Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Mentat Thufir Hawat also gets an enthusiastic cuddle. But the dialogue between all of them is so lacklustre and packed with more exposition, none of it could establish them as living, breathing, caring human beings that even you should care about. Rebecca plays Lady Jessica as the nervous mum who turns into a fierce fighter whenever required. She has the longest screen time in the movie after Timothee but even then, nothing about her warms you up enough to care about her. 

Timothee, himself, plays Paul as a young princeling, tortured by dreams of a girl he’s never met (Zendaya--whose promotions to screen time ratio is extremely skewed), a future war waged in his name by fanatics, fear of turning to the dark side, fully Kylo Ren-ing in the process. Perhaps things will get darker and bleaker in the films to come but here, Timothee lends his wide smiles to Paul every time he runs into an old friend and his curious, gentle personality when speaking to a gardener about the futility of his job. These few moments offer tiny slivers of humanity in the midst of all the sand, swords and heavy machinery.

Dune has not been all that I expected it to be, a human story underneath that sepia filter, surrounded by stunning landscapes. But if watching Dune is a necessity, I would recommend finding the biggest, loudest screen you can. Watching Dune in IMAX kept me hypnotised for a couple of hours into believing that I had witnessed something spectacular. The attention to detail and the realism that Greig Fraser and Denis Villeneuve have brought to the CGI they have used seems to be from a time closer to one that Dune is set in, rather than the one we live in. There is beauty in every frame, whether it’s glowing orbs or a bloated Stellan Skarsgard floating in the air; Paul touching water for the last time or sand for the first; Lady Jessica’s billowing hijab in the wind or her shrouded in mist. Zimmer's music that sounds like haunted choirs and resounding horns, also envelops every scene, shaking chairs and giving goosebumps.

All of this does make Dune one of the prettiest films ever. But it is definitely not sand, spice and everything nice.

Dune
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling and others

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Tuesday, December 07, 2021