“Dune” is an ambitious behemoth unlike any other movie to come out this year. Part blockbuster and part art-film, it struggles to realize one of the most famous sci-fi epics. It will overwhelm, amaze, confuse and perhaps mystify, but it must be seen.
Like invading Russia in winter, trying to adapt Dune has proven disastrous to any who attempt it so far. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel is dense, religious and loaded with both historical and personal insights. Its plot involves giant worms the size of skyscrapers and multiple houses of futuristic medieval mutants fighting for control of a space drug. Perhaps it truly can’t be translated onto film, but Villeneuve’s adaptation is the best attempt yet.
The film takes place thousands of years in the future, after humanity has colonized the stars. It follows the young Paul
This is an incredibly light synopsis of the plot, and the chief faults of the movie all stem from there. How do you structure a film that has a dozen subplots and is supposed to simultaneously be a complete film and half of a larger story? They couldn’t quite find an answer here, so it has about three false endings and one true ending. Its middle act is somewhere between 30 and 90 minutes long. In truth, “Dune” is an exhausting watch in the theaters, and it may taste bitter to someone looking for a reliably entertaining sci-fi story.
Rarely, though, does a studio film shoot for spirituality and psychology in this way. Rarely is a movie so fascinated with creating a world. Rarely does a blockbuster create such a thick atmosphere. For nearly three hours, I was silent and enraptured.
The cast is obviously packed, but every star pulls their weight. Chalamet sells both sides of his character: the unsure young man in way over his head and the confident future
–messiah who can see through space and time. Jason Momoa has incredible charisma; his character is probably the simplest but most likable in the film. Rebecca Ferguson finds new depths as Paul’s mother, attempting to show no emotion but still slipping. Zendaya, despite being a limited instrument as an actor, has a great presence that pervades the entire film (even though she’s not actually in much of the movie).
This does bring back the film’s central issue: the fact that its structure leaves most of the character payoffs for part two. Interesting characters can randomly disappear from the film at a moment’s notice, and others feel like they’ve been given little time to develop. With a film of this size, something will always be left out, some aspect of the story will be forgotten. But the issues of the movie stop there, and there’s not a single other aspect of this that could be seen as a letdown.
The visuals will hang in your imagination, stirring up memories of things like “2001: A Space Odyssey.” There have been cool things on the big screen this year, but nothing to this level of awe and spectacle. This is a true gonzo experience, with unique designs thrown on screen every minute, dense worldbuilding expressed effortlessly through clever details and an overall aesthetic that grounds you completely in the world.
The direction and cinematography show just what needs to be seen. There’s an impressive level of restraint on the part of Villeneuve. You can feel his passion for the material, and it must have taken a lot of effort not to get lost in the setting. The way they visualize strange concepts like psychic powers is creative. The first time they’re used, the entire crowd sat up and gasped, and I couldn’t blame them.
The movie’s biggest success might be its sound. Hans Zimmer’s score is overwhelming. All sorts of drums, woodwinds and choirs thunder from the speakers. It doesn’t just excite you
, but also lowers and lifts your spirits along with the story. It’s worth listening to all on its own, and it rounds out perhaps the most unique blockbuster experience in years.
This is the closest I’ve come to feeling like people in 1977 must have felt seeing “Star Wars” for the first time. “Dune” is something different, something otherworldly and something truly special.