Dune: Dreams of Alien Worlds Movie Review (#HBOMax)
Tthe word I keep coming back to is monumental. that of Denis Villeneuve Dune is monumental in a way that hasn’t been the case in a movie for a long time. The director and co-writer took a familiar story – and not just because it’s based on a book, by Frank Herbert, beloved by many – and told it with unusual, if not dreamy, elegance and thoughtfulness on a scale breathtaking.
Almost a decade ago I reconsidered The phantom menace when it was reconfigured for 3D. At the time I wrote:
No one makes films like this anymore. Almost no one has ever done it. There is sweeping here like nobody’s business. [snip] Nobody builds the world in movies like this [George] Lucas did it … yes, even in the less than satisfactory second [Star Wars] trilogy. The grandeur of Lucas’ vision is positively expansive, of a civilization spread enough that even the greatest of the big bad guys – Darth Vader, the Empire – are just a distant rumor to many.
But now, here, with Villeneuve Dune, we still have something like that. And clinging to it is beautiful. Even if Dune is a very different kind of movie.
Yep, it’s another hero’s journey (and a white savior’s too, damn it), although it’s more like Star wars was presented from the perspective of Princess Leia. Because here we have the young Paul Atréides (Timothée Chalamet: Little women, handsome boy), heir to House Atreides, one of the great houses that governed, under an emperor, interstellar human civilization in the year 10.191. Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac: The Card Counter, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), has just been charged by the emperor to resume the exploitation of spices on the planet Arakis; the spice is the most precious commodity known to mankind, because its hallucinogenic qualities allow navigators to cross interstellar space. (That’s right, okay?) This new position for the Atreids is dangerous for a number of reasons, not least because the “brutal” House Harkonnen, to which the Emperor has withdrawn the spice franchise, is unlikely to take this lightly. But Duke Leto is a really good man – at least on the curve of the capitalist colonizers – and believes he can bring peace to Arakis, who was torn apart by conflict under the Harkonnen regime.
So House Atreides leaves their home planet of Caladan for Arakis…
Paul is not sure whether he can wear the coat his father expects of him: eventually to take over the Atréides House. And he dreamed of Arakis, even before the Emperor’s unexpected order, and of a young native Fremen woman, called Chani (Zendaya: Spider-Man: Homecoming), although he does not yet know his name. These dreams are strange to him, and even perhaps prophetic … because Paul inherited the talents of his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson: Reminiscence, Doctor Sleep), a former sidekick of the Bene Gesserit “witch” sect of women who are powers behind thrones everywhere. On the one hand, they do not use the Force, but they use the Voice, with which they can command the faint of heart. Soon we learn that Paul, thanks to his mother’s action, might even be the Kwisatz Haderach, a savior prophesied by the Bene Gesserit.
(As you suspect or already know, Lucas was inspired by Dune during the creation Star wars. Luke’s analogue here could be Chani. Funny how this kind of story only allows women to be at the periphery but never at the center. Do the men who invent these tales imagine that women have no anguish, no doubt, no desire for adventure, and no fear of actually achieving it? Can a woman ever be a flavor of Chosen One?)
But unlike Star wars, this is not a movie about space battles, and although it is about the revolution, it may only be starting to foment here. (This movie is only part one. We have to hope part two gets the green light.) There is action, things that explode really well, but mostly Dune is extremely dignified, often calm even in times of tension, a thoughtful and incredibly beautiful film about ugly things: oppression and imperialism, political maneuvers and strategic assassinations, parents who bring children into the universe to serve their own presumed grand purposes .
The performances of the wonderful cast are formidable: on one alone they bring a gravity to the proceedings that elevates the film even more. It is a solemn film that treats science fiction with the seriousness it deserves, and is too rarely seen on screen. There is nothing flashing here.
But in many ways, this Dune is the whole construction of the world, the best and most captivating genre. There are few infodumps, and the ones we receive are graciously presented, like when Paul watches a “film book” on the ecology of Arakis. Especially, Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) allows us to absorb the reality of human existence in eight thousand years in the majestic panoramas of Caladan (played by the fjords of Norway) and Arakis (of which the deserts of Jordan represent), and by small touches which us indicate how people live: “How does it feel to walk in a new world? Someone asks Paul when the Atreids arrive on Arakis, and so we learn that even for a young man of immense wealth and privilege like him, interstellar travel is rare. (Even the hefty expense of an Imperial visit to Caladan is amazed.) Atreid technology – oh, those excellent insectoid ornithopters! – looks different from Harkonnen technology, none of which can be confused with Imperial technology. Huge ships defy gravity… but a bagpiper acts as a herald for House Atreides. Memories of Earth linger on these worlds – under Caladan names (echoing Caledonia) like Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa: Aquaman, the wrong lot) – but these are just memories.
If you’re a fan of that particular kind of sci-fi, grand, wide, far-reaching space opera… if you yearn for alien landscapes, new worlds, here they are. Dune may be unfinished, even if it peaks at over two and a half hours, but it is deeply satisfying nonetheless.
I’m not going to say “You have to see this in a cinema, and on the biggest screen possible!” I saw this in IMAX, and it was really fascinating. But we’re still halfway through the deadly pandemic, and cases are skyrocketing in the US and UK, where many of you reading this can be found. (If you’re somewhere else where the pandemic has been better controlled, you’re in luck!) Vaccinated. If you decide to see it at home, you will always find enormous pleasures there. And, I have no doubt, many of the films that have hit screens this year and the last will, in the years to come, be re-released on the big screen. No movie is worth risking your life, your health or that of others.