Review: Dune is an Extraordinary Technical Achievement

A 37-year gap is certainly a long wait. I’m talking about none other than Frank Herbert’s 1965 seminal sci-fi novel, ‘Dune’, which was previously adapted for the big screen back in 1984. That film, directed by David Lynch, may have been a cult classic. But it was a huge flop both critically and financially at the time of its release.

Now, fast forward to the present time, we finally get another big-screen version of ‘Dune’. Originally set to be released last November but forced to postpone due to the ongoing concern of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have a strong feeling that Denis Villeneuve is capable to pull off the feat admirably. Besides, his previous experience in directing thought-provoking cerebral sci-fi films in ‘Arrival’ and the sadly underappreciated (at least from the mainstream’s point of view) ‘Blade Runner 2049’ speak for itself.

Before I go straight to the review, here is what you need to know about the film. Set in the year 10,191, we learn that Harkonnen has ruled the desert planet of Arrakis for decades, where they have gained enormous profits from their spice-mining operation. The spice, which is a sacred hallucinogen, has the power of prolonging one’s life and other benefits. Led by the sinister Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, in heavy makeup) along with his nephew, Rabban (Dave Bautista), he rules the planet with the iron fist and oppresses the indigenous people of Arrakis a.k.a. Fremen.

However, Harkonnen’s days of governing Arrakis are over when the Emperor decides to hand over the responsibility to Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of House Atreides from the homeworld of Caladan. While Duke Leto is happily obliged, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen refuses to give up and he is looking for whatever ways necessary to rule Arrakis again.

The film also focuses on Duke Leto’s young son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), who has been constantly plagued with recurring visions of the future, particularly his mysterious involvement with the Fremen girl (Zendaya). Also, a warrior-in-training under the mentorship of Duke’s two military advisors including Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Paul is equally groomed by his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) to master the art of mind control via the ‘Voice’.

Denis Villeneuve wasn’t kidding when he said, “It has been dreamed, designed and shot thinking IMAX” during an interview at this year’s Venice Film Festival. After watching ‘Dune’ on IMAX, I must admit it is an immersive experience. The film is as cinematic as it gets, the kind that you should consider watching this on the big screen if possible instead of streaming it on tv. It helps that Villeneuve favors lots of practical effects over CGI, where the latter is only used to enhance the scenes. Similar to what he did in ‘Blade Runner 2049’, his largely practical approach makes the overall experience all the more palpable. This includes everything from the large-scale sets and props to the desert planet of Arrakis, which isn’t shot using the greenscreen but actually filmed on location in Jordan and Abu Dhabi. Even the CGI sandworm is physically imposing no matter it moves swiftly under the sand or shown in a giant close-up, complete with long teeth shaped like needles.

‘Dune’ also gets an extra boost from Patrice Vermette’s spectacular production design while Greig Fraser’s cinematography is a first-rate technical marvel. Hans Zimmer’s familiar musical composition that evokes ominous dread is put into good use throughout the film. Although his score tends to get too loud in certain scenes, it’s hard to deny that Zimmer’s overall effort plays a significant part in grabbing one’s attention upon watching the film.

The action, however, is a mixed bag. Earlier moments such as Paul and Gurney’s shield-enabled swordfight training and the daring rescue scene are praiseworthy in terms of their overall staging, tension and suspense. But once the action takes place mostly in the dark, as evident during the sudden ambush of Harkonnen’s army against House Atreides, the film loses its sense of kinetic flair. Besides, shooting action setpieces either in the dark or low-light settings are usually an ill-advised creative choice. They are usually difficult to decipher what’s going on in the scene, making it hard to appreciate or enjoy the staging of its action setpiece. This, in turn, made me frustrated because I’m sure Villeneuve is more than capable to do better in the action department. Or maybe it has to do with the budgetary concern, even though the film is already blessed with a reportedly $165 million at his disposal?

As for the plot, the film may have been plagued with expositions but Villeneuve has the knack of telling his story in a hypnotic way possible. He knows how to grab your attention, which instantly reminds me of Villeneuve’s same strategy seen in ‘Blade Runner 2049’. Then, there’s the all-star cast. Timothée Chalamet is perfectly typecast as a conflicted young man, who is unsure of his own destiny. Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson along with Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin all deliver solid supporting turns in their respective roles. Stellan Skarsgård, in the meantime, channels the late Marlon Brando-like Colonel Kurtz from ‘Apocalypse Now’ in his antagonist role as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

Too bad some of the actors aren’t given ample room to shine in their performances. Among them includes Javier Bardem, who plays the leader of Fremen, Stilgar while Zendaya is largely underutilized as one of Fremen’s warrior-fighters. Dave Bautista is equally wasted as Baron’s nephew, Rabban.

Overall, if you can look past some of the flaws in this film, ‘Dune’ remains a remarkable achievement that David Lynch tried and failed more than 35 years ago. Whether the film is getting the chance to continue the story (Villeneuve splits ‘Dune’ into two parts) will depend on its overall box-office total. Otherwise, we will be left with unresolved questions since ‘Dune’ ends with a cliffhanger.

Rating: 3.5/5

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