Review by C.J. Bunce
Once you’ve seen a film by Denis Villeneuve, you can spot his work instantly. Somehow the reserved, slow, plodding storytelling style worked for his alien invasion movie Arrival, his spin on Philip K. Dick’s characters in Blade Runner 2049, and last year it was just what was needed for his interpretation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Despite previews that looked like George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, Villeneuve pushed aside sprawling action and explosions for a thoroughly faithful adaptation of the novel. He also distanced himself from David Lynch’s version of Dune from 1984, leaving behind all things creepy for a quiet story about a Chosen One in a future, sci-fi desert-world driven by the value of spice and the power that goes with it. Watch Vudu for deals as Dune has been a recent digital feature to buy at only $9.99, it is streaming on Prime Video, and it’s available on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD.
Villeneuve, the guy who actually said, “In a way, it’s Star Wars for adults” conjures the vibe of Peter Parker and Frodo Baggins for his hero Paul Atreides, played by the boyish Timothée Chalamet. Chalamet’s hero seems even less able and likely to succeed than Mark Hamill’s awkward young Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. And that fits, especially for this film, which is actually only the first half of Herbert’s novel (Part 2 is due in theaters next October). Stepping into the role last played on the big screen by Kyle MacLachlan, Chalamet maneuvers all the obstacles in his path in the role, which is primarily being upstaged by today’s leading big-budget movie actors. That’s Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem. MacLachlan probably did it better, but the way Villeneuve is telling this story, he’s just right.
That isn’t to say Villeneuve’s adaptation doesn’t have action. The best science fiction and fantasy film of 2021, Dune has all the sci-fi/fantasy mash-up elements of Flash Gordon, The Chronicles of Riddick, John Carter of Mars, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, but without the expensive production. Major set pieces are few and far between, but the best is a scene following Paul and his father, played by Oscar Isaacs, attempting to save a group of workers on a giant spice harvester from an impending attack by a behemoth worm. If the strange world-building doesn’t put you off too much, the tension and excitement in that scene should reel in any viewer. Isaac melts into every role, and he does that here as a kingly royal. The ornithopters, flying metal dragonflies built using both small models and life-size vehicles, reflect the next level of sci-fi tech on the big screen.
The most fun is Jason Momoa as Paul’s mentor, Duncan Idaho (one of the worst names ever in sci-fi). Momoa is still the same guy you’ve seen in Aquaman and Stargate: Atlantis, but the audience needs some goofy fun in this drama, so he, too was a smart choice. And Rebecca Ferguson has the right balance as the mother of Paul, torn between her religion–which points to Paul as the Chosen One–and any mother’s concern for her son.
Best of all may be Villeneuve holding back on the make-up and costumes, which are hardly over-the-top compared to Riddick, John Carter, and the like. The variety of costume looks fade into the background. Lynch’s make-ups and costumes for the villains in the 1984 movie were often simply gross. Stellan Skarsgård plays the key villain and baron of the House Harkonnen–the oogiest of the characters, but there’s less shock and awe this time. The details of ugly characters don’t pull you from the story as in Lynch’s movie.
Villeneuve does his job further by only spoon feeding the audience two other great characters, Zendaya as the Fremen woman Chani, and Javier Bardem as the Fremen chieftain Stilgar. They’re interesting enough to get you back to find out what happens in the second film, if you haven’t already read the book.
Ultimately you can’t tell that so much of the film was filmed on location as opposed to using something like the Volume as in The Mandalorian. CGI elements like the giant worm blend seamlessly with the sets, which is how it is supposed to work. The icing on the cake is one of the top musical scores of 2021 by Hans Zimmer.
Don’t expect a lot of awe here–this is just simple storytelling adapted right. But it’s also one not to be missed. Find Dune now streaming on Vudu and Prime Video, also available on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD.