Dune. A review.


If you have ever watched a little old sci fi movies series called Star Wars, you might very well think that Dune ripped off huge chunks of it to create the long-delayed sci fi epic that began part one of its journey. But once you realize that Frank Herbert’s novel was published in 1965 and A New Hope premiered in 1977, you’ll realize that the opposite is actually true. While it is far from a perfect story, even the first half of the multi-novel saga provides more than enough to realize just how influential it has been in science fiction across mediums.

To briefly sum up events, Dune is set in the far, far future – 10191 AD – where galaxy-trekking humans form an empire run on a drug called spice. It is a naturally occurring drug from a desert-world called Arrakis, which has been mined and exploited for about 80 years by a noble family called the Harkonnens. They are kicked off by the never-seen-on-screen emperor, who orders another noble family, the Atreides, to take control of the planet. The mining of this drug, which is the most valuable resource in the universe, makes the planet ground zero for conflict.

What happens next is both a strength and a weakness. Dune is a very dense, cerebral, complicated story that stretches well over twenty novels. Director Denis Villeneuve masterfully made the world come to life and streamlined the first half of the book quite well; but in places it was streamlined to the point where it might be confusing to someone who has not read the original novel.

Timotheé Chalamet portrays the messiah-figure main character, Paul, the son of the Duke of Atreides; played by Oscar Isaac, who played Poe Dameron in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. They are joined by Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides; Jason Mamoa – who you might recognize as Aquaman, or as Khal Drago from Game of Thrones – and Zendaya as Chani, a local to the planet whom Paul has been having dreams about. But much like Dave Bautista’s main bad guy henchman character, you might be disappointed if you were expecting to see a lot of Zendaya. She features prominently in the plot and in vision-sequences, but she is not in the film as much as you may have been led to believe. Although it is heavily implied that she will make a much larger role later.

The narrative, again, is complicated. But it largely boils down to the difference between people in a far off land being exploited for resources and being made into partners for the acquisition of resources. Paul’s character being pretty much announced as a savior brings up real life historic undertones of foreign powers descending on far off cultures to “save them,” regardless of what they seem to think or need, pretty explicit. That comes straight from the source material in Herbert’s novel; as do many inspirations from the Middle East, in aesthetic, and in politics that feel resonant both then and especially now.

The parallels with A New Hope are striking. Everything from the desert environment to the chosen one character, to the mind control powers that certain characters have, to the flying vehicle chases all show clear influences in George Lucas’s original masterpiece that you can see clear inspiration sources from in Dune. The whole feel of the movie feels a lot like Star Wars and other science fiction universes it has inspired, while not exactly feeling like any of them. It feels like a fantasy adventure, cyberpunk action movie and a steampunk adventure all at the same time.

The craft of the film is hard to find fault with however and neither is the acting. This 2021 adaptation of a landmark sci fi novel has the benefit of decades of technological improvement over the original 1984 adaptation and it is a fine showcase of what special effects are technically possible to produce in 2021.

This entire edition of this week’s newspaper could be filled with glowing reviews of just about every other actor who appears on screen, however brief their roles are. Stellan Skarsgard is unrecognizable as the villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, bringing a manipulative and slothful sense of menace who might otherwise be a ridiculous or forgettable pure-evil villain. Chen Chang’s interpretation of Dr. Yueh was a great example of how an actor can tell a lot with a small amount of screen time to provide a key part of the plot. Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s Dr. Liet Kynes excelled in her performance what the film did almost as well in the background – staying engaging and likeable while also dumping a lot of exposition. And both Stephan McCinkley Henderson and Josh Brolin did a good job fleshing out the Attraides faction in brief, but action filled supporting roles.

Some movies are fine to stream over a laptop or even a television set, but this is very definitely not one of them. If you want to see this movie the way it is meant to be seen, it would be best if you can find the biggest movie theater screen possible to take it all in.

Image Credit: IMDB.com.

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