‘Dune’ (2021) Review

From the moment MGM Studios decided to postpone No Time to Die last March, the world of cinema has been waiting for the movie event to make both audience and industry feel as though the theater experience is truly back. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune seemingly has all the necessary ingredients to be just that – a star studded cast, a beloved and rich source material, a massive budget, and a prestige director with a passion for the project.

New film releases rarely open with level of fanfare that Dune garnered leading up to its opening (especially releases that are not part of a name brand franchise such as Marvel, Fast & Furious, or Star Wars). Dune announces itself as a force to be reckoned with; as a monumental feat of filmmaking. Which of course begs the question of whether it’s up to the task of living up to its lofty goals.

The question is not one that’s easily answered while viewing. There’s no denying this: Dune wants to be massive and wants you to know that it’s massive. From the world building to the thematic elements, this film is aiming to wow.

Dune is all about scope and scale. Its majesty lies in its grandeur. As do many of its shortcomings. Villeneuve’s ambition is virtually unmatched by many of his contemporaries. His passion is palpable throughout the film and his abilities as a director are undeniable.

Along with co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, Villeneuve masterfully blends the space opera, political drama, and coming of age elements of the source material. Along with Joe Walker’s tight editing, the adapted script is trim enough to prevent the film from feeling bloated.

Greig Fraser’s cinematography is as dry, as cold, and as ruthless as the worlds that our characters inhabit. Which is not to say that his sweeping camerawork is neither brilliant nor beautiful. Overhead shots of the waters of Caladan or the dunes of Arrakis are as striking as any other frame in Dune.

While on the topic of the striking, it would be remiss to fail to mention the film’s stars. Villeneuve carefully balances a wide cast of characters without straying too far from our focus on Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides.

As the core of our story, Chalamet does just enough to keep us centered and allows for his co-stars to support as necessary. Jason Momoa is a subtle scene stealer as the fierce Duncan Idaho. Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson embody the wisdom and dignity of Paul’s parent, the Duke Leto Atreides and Lady Jessica.

The always great Stellan Skarsgård is masterfully menacing as the wicked Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Props to the makeup and CG teams that truly bring the grotesque Baron to life. Zendaya, Josh Brolin, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, and Javier Bardem round out the supporting cast and are all able to grace the screen even in limited screen time.

The characters traverse through the film to the beat of Ham Zimmer’s absolutely astounding score. The pounding of the drums and cries of the chorus singers are as lived in as any other piece of Arrakis; at times feeling as if the score was birthed by the Fremen themselves.

Perhaps Dune’s greatest achievement is its ability to make the unimaginable feel real. The costume design, particularly the stillsuits, is both fantastical and functional. The visual effects are as stunning in their restraint as they are in their use. As with the rest of the movie, the size is what impresses.

Much like the film’s protagonist, Dune is burdened with the pressures (both internal and external) of fulfilling prophecy. It is the latest movie tasked with saving the cinemas. The movie to push the boundaries of same day streaming and theater release model introduced by Warner Bros. late last year. Dune’s opening weekend was set to be the ultimate test. Have our viewing habits completely shifted? Do we no longer value the traditional blockbuster?

At times, Dune can feel like an uninspired literal translation of page to screen but is more often than not a rich exploration of the first half of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic. And although the movie can ultimately be billed as a two- and half-hour setup film, its gargantuan nature and technical prowess is undoubtedly awe inspiring. As such, there will always be a space for movies like Dune. It’s just up to us, audience and industry alike, to figure out where to find them.

Author: Raf Stitt

Brooklyn based. Full time movie fan, part time podcaster, occasional writer. Follow on Twitter: @rafstitt