Dune (2021)

“Dreams are messages from the deep.”

Dense but never dull, careful but never too cautious either, and every bit the sci-fi epic that it paints itself to be, Dune is a visionary experience in the truest sense. It takes the words from author Frank Herbert’s pages and not only mostly manages to make them knowable, but honors them with the sheer scale and world-building that they truly deserve. I’ve watched it twice now, and while it feels too incomplete for my taste, I think it’s safe to say Dune is a cinematic experience unlike any we’ve had it quite some time. It’s beautiful, profound, and yet another masterclass from one of the best auteurs working today. This is invigorating, inspiring, intelligent cinema.

The way that Dune begins is crucial to understanding what the film as a whole wants to communicate, and how we’re meant to interpret the flawed protagonist Paul (a perfectly cast Timothée Chalamet) leading the way throughout. In a calm cadence, with an honest affection, we hear Chani (Zendaya) – sorely missing from the film but sparsely featured in Paul’s dream sequences – talking about her homeland and how it’s been ravaged by fearmongering pilferers. Dune is a deeply political film, tackling the effects of imperialism and imbedded capitalism on sacred lands, and it puts these on display in ways both subtle (like a small statue of a matador with a bull) and grandiose (such as all out warfare). The balance between the two is stunning and sublime. It’s massive yet intimate and thoughtful in that way.

For the most part, I was just missing depth on a character level for too many members of the impressive ensemble. I wanted to know Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) better, to really get the intentions of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and to understand the unquenchable greed driving the Baron (Stellan Skarsgard) and his nephew (Dave Bautista). They all have wants but not enough purpose because there’s just so much going on in the story and in the picture, and it made the middle of the movie hard to connect with on a human level. Dune isn’t a cold or distant film, yet I still feel as though the thermostat could’ve been turned up a bit, especially given the opaque palette.

I also thought there was something – some lightheartedness, some sense of levity – missing from this science fiction epic altogether, outside of the charm brought by Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa). Similar to Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve and his team behind the scenes get each and every physical aspect right except for what’s on the page. Yet I found Dune a bit confusing, lacking clarification and specificity on the mechanics of how this world works, and even after multiple viewings I still didn’t understand what exactly was happening on screen at every turn. I’m not sure the lore and the map were all that well explained or drawn. But boy, is it something to behold. It casts a spell of wonder and awe in ways most movies could only dream of.

Dune is sci-fi spectacle of the greatest grandeur of the now, akin to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in tone and texture and expression but set in the year 10191. And while it’s too obviously a piece of a bigger picture – and to that affect doesn’t quite feel whole as a standalone effort – it’s still a work of art crafted by a director who so obviously, earnestly, and most of all sincerely cares about the characters and the stories he gets to bring to life on the screen. Dune might not be up there with Denis Villeneuve’s best work, but it is a monumental achievement in filmmaking, and seems to be the lowered drawbridge welcoming us into a whole new world that mirrors our own. That deft and timeless blend with reality is science fiction at its best.

“Fear is the mind killer.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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