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Denis Villeneuve: Dune it Right

Posted by January 18th, 2022 No Comments »

Dune (2021)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac & Zendaya

Best to get two things out of the way before I weigh in on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. First, I am a fan of David Lynch’s Dune (1984). And not in an ironic, “so-bad-it’s-good” kind of way. Second, I have not and will not read the Frank Herbert novel. That means I will only be comparing this film to the bizarre adaptation from the 80’s and not to the epic novel that spanned many sequels. Speaking of sequels, expect this two and a half hour Sci-Fi adventure to get at least one sequel, even with its unsuccessful box office receipts

As he demonstrated with Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and, to a lesser degree, 2016’s Arrival, Villeneuve is skilled at building fantastical worlds that are beautiful to look at while retaining a realistic gravitas – a feat that other sci-fi films struggle to achieve. With Dune, we’re exported to a universe where the science is paramount to the science fiction. Each costume, vehicle and spaceship feels like it could survive its environment.  

It is difficult to avoid comparisons between our young lead, Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, and the man that played the role with such bravado in 1984. Unfortunately, Chalamet has neither the look nor the charisma of Mr. Kyle MacLachlan who, by the way, was acting in his FIRST feature film at the time. Where Chalamet excels is in conveying the sense that he is important. He plays the role like a true heir to the throne. Unfortunately, this sense of superiority extends beyond the story. He comes across as an actor who knows he’s at the top of his game but with more hubris than confidence. As a result, his performance occasionally pulled me out of the grandeur of this epic story.

Fortunately, the other actor with almost as much screen time all but made up for Chalamet’s uneven performance. Each time she’s on the screen as the enigmatic Lady Jessica Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson commands our attention without distracting from the story. The remaining cast features a long list of great actors, each of whom demonstrated they were up for the task with their limited screen time. Among my favorites were Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thurfir Hawat, a Mentat (human trained to mimic computers) and Master of Assassins, and the man with the best beard in Hollywood, Oscar Isaac, who played Duke Atriedies, the father of our lead character.

The pace of this epic film was slow, but no boring. It’s a meditative look into a world that mirros ours, politically, while wowing us with mysticism and a grand scope. This is not to say that action is vacant from this adventure story. There are more than enough battle scenes to engage the average blockbuster film goer, and these are done with realism and brevity. Gone are the grotesque images seared into my mind by the Lynch original. These are replaced with more political intrigue and subterfuge. I accept this trade off as Villeneuve makes the adaptation of the adored novel his own.

When it comes to the script, the dialogue is heady yet moves the plot along with limited amounts of exposition. There are, however, times when the whispers between mother and son are inaudible, and, although this is annoying, I was still able to stay transfixed knowing I can turn on subtitles when I watch it again on HBO Max. 

In summary, Denis Villeneuve created a beautiful world in his first of two or three films in the new DUNE franchise. Is it as fun as the 1984 original? No, but it is more beautiful to look at and has the potential to tell a better overall story – albeit in multiple installments.

If both filmmakers’ first sci-fi films (Dune (1984) & Arrival (2016)) were B’s, then this third science fiction film by Denis Villeneuve is an A.

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