Dune (2021) – Film Review

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Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Stellan Skarsgard
Certificate: 12A

By @Roger Crow

How much you get out of the latest big screen conversion of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel probably depends on how much groundwork you’ve done beforehand.

If that’s zero, then chances are you’ll be impressed by the imagery, the sounds, and the overall feel of the piece, while not having much of a clue about anything else.

I did all my research back in 1984 when I was given a copy of the novel for my birthday in anticipation of the David Lynch movie. As a Star Wars fan, the idea of this multi-million dollar film version was tantalising, and as I had five months to wait, the best thing was to read the book.

I’m glad I did because the film was a glorious mess. Lynch seemed like a great choice for some elements, but he’s not a tentpole movie director. Had Ridley Scott crafted the version he was approached to do years earlier it might have been a different story. I doubt Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version would have made much sense, but the work that went into it at least paved the way for Alien, and gave us one of the best film docs of the last decade in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune.

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“Dream sequences”

Dune centres on spice, the most lucrative commodity in the universe. The intergalactic struggle for its ownership leads to the Atreides clan being pawns in a chess game between the evil Harkonnens, the indigenous Fremen of the planet Arrakis, where spice is mined, and the mystical Bene Gesserit, who have special powers, can persuade people to do things against their will and are obsessed with Paul Atreides. He could be the chosen one, the young man who may or may not be a messianic ruler.

If that’s a lot to take in, then don’t worry. Denis Villeneuve does a fine job of spinning the assorted plates, while foreshadowing what’s to come. The all-important desert-dwelling Fremen may not appear until later in the movie, but there are so many dream sequences and flash frames of them, newcomers will at least be ready by the time they arrive.

Hans Zimmer’s score is a glorious cacophony of sounds, which feel germane to the story. And the scale of the movie is suitably impressive. Huge spaceships, vast amounts of troops, and the Harkonnens are as terrifying as bad guys should be.

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“Mystical box”

But everything seems to take place in half light, or fog, dust, layers of gloom. This is not some pristine movie, but like watching through a smoke-filled lens half the time.

The casting is as sharp as a sand worm’s tooth. There’s not a weak link in the chain on that front. Rebecca Ferguson was born to play Lady Jessica, the Bene Gesserit mother of Paul, and Timothee Chalamet is spot on as the young hero. Stellan Skarsgard shines as the evil Baron Harkonnen, far more imposing than Kenneth Macmillan’s cackling panto villain in the Lynch version. Oscar Isaac is an excellent Duke Leto, and Jason Momoa is superb as the charismatic House Atreides warrior Duncan Idaho. (Yes, that film logo does look more like Dunc than Dune).

There are so many key moments from the book that work well in Dune 2021. The Gom Jabbar scene, when Paul is tested by placing his hand in a mystical box which seems to burn his flesh away; the training sequence, which gives audiences an idea of how personal defence shields work (valuable exposition), and the poison tooth, which becomes clear if you’re a newcomer.

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The movie does start to flag when Paul and Jessica finally meet the Fremen, so it’s not a bad thing that shortly after, Dune builds to a climax and then ends.

This is not a film to watch if easily bored, like one punter in front of me who spent most of the film on her phone. (I would have said something, but Glasgow on a Saturday night is not the place to make polite requests).

As he proved with Prisoners, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve is one of the most interesting and bold directors of his generation. This version has been in the pipeline for years, and when Covid postponed it from Autumn 2020, I wondered if we would ever see the result.

Yes it’s flawed, but this is so much more on the money than the predecessors. (A TV version from 2000 isn’t bad, though it still lacks a certain something).

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“So much texture”

There’s far too much for one movie in the source text. In the hands of Peter Jackson it would have been three films easily, and he’s probably the only other person who could have pulled it off.

Dune 2021 is an arthouse film with a tentpole budget, and it does a pretty fine job of peeling back the layers of the enormous cinematic onion (that may also bring tears to some eyes). See it on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system. The thrum of the ornithopters is a dream come true, as is the thump of the gadget which summons those enormous sandworms. There’s so much texture here, you can almost smell the spice. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for the UHD version when I can savour the whole thing again, preferably with director’s commentary. And then fingers crossed for part two, but who knows when and if that will see the light of day?

For now, people of the world, spice up your life.

Dune is in cinemas now

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