‘Dune’ Review: An Epic Tale Told With Stunning Visuals and Outstanding Performances

Dune
TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides and REBECCA FERGUSON as Lady Jessica Atreides in ‘Dune’ (Photo Credit: Chiabella James © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Director Denis Villeneuve’s stunning take on Frank Herbert’s Dune pulls off the near-impossible by not only living up to its pre-release hype but also surpassing expectations. This PG-13 adaptation is a visually spectacular, mesmerizing introduction to this world of spice, sandworms, and warring noble families.

Dune begins by announcing what’s about to play out is only part one of the story. This first of hopefully many installments lays out the pivotal characters and power dynamics that pit rival Great Houses against each other in a battle to control the harvesting of spice. The precious commodity can extend lifespans, enhance mental capacity, and makes space travel possible. As Herbert wrote, “He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

House Harkonnen’s control of Arrakis, the only planet where spice can be found, is taken away by the Emperor and handed over to House Atreides as the film gets underway. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), leader of House Atreides, is leery of the Emperor’s motivations but has no choice other than to move his family, along with the Atreides army, from their home planet of Caladan to the inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis.

Duke Leto’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), inherited special mental abilities from his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of an exclusive sisterhood known as the Bene Gesserit. Paul has prophetic visions of Arrakis and specifically of a girl (played by Zendaya) who lives there prior to his family’s journey to the isolated planet. From the moment he steps foot on Arrakis, it’s apparent he feels a deep connection to the planet and its oppressed indigenous population, the Fremen.

Shortly after taking over the spice harvesting operation, Duke Leto’s suspicions that his House has been setup by the Emperor prove to be true. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard in a grotesque fat suit), leader of House Harkonnen, plots to reclaim control of Arrakis and sets in motion a war between the Houses with the future of Arrakis – and the empire – at stake.

Denis Villeneuve assembled an incredible ensemble for this epic sci-fi film, led by powerful performances by Oscar Isaac, Timothée Chalamet, and Rebecca Ferguson. In fact, even with a two and a half hour running time the opening chapter of the revived Dune cinematic franchise features so many compelling performances and interesting characters that quite a few wind up with less screen time than they deserve. Zendaya’s Chani is featured in Paul’s dreams but overall isn’t given much to do in this outing. (Chani is set up to become a key player in part two as is Javier Bardem’s Stilgar, one of the leaders of the Fremen.) Jason Momoa turns in a scene-stealing performance as one of House Atreides’ fiercest warriors and one of Paul’s closest friends and advisors. And Josh Brolin’s terrific, as always, in his few scenes as Gurney Halleck, a Warmaster for House Atreides and trusted confidante of Duke Leto.

The film’s driven by incredible performances, however the key to Dune’s success lies squarely on the shoulders of Timothée Chalamet as the would-be messiah who drives the narrative in Herbert’s first two Dune novels. Paul spends Dune: Part 1 growing into his powers, and Timothée Chalamet’s a commanding presence as he captures Paul’s transition from the love and protection he enjoys on his home planet to a young man forced to deal with loss and betrayal on Arrakis.

Hans Zimmer’s pulsating, unrelenting score feels like its own character and Greig Fraser’s stunning cinematography demands the film be seen on as large a screen as possible. The special effects, in particular the rendering of the sandworms, are spectacular and the planet of Arrakis looks astonishingly real.

Given the depth and breadth of Herbert’s Dune universe, I expected to feel a little lost trying to figure out the politics and key players of this 2021 adaptation. Fortunately, Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth’s adaptation is so precise, so well-constructed that any fears of getting lost in this fantastical world proved to be unfounded. The film’s only real shortcoming is the lack of a satisfying ending. We can only hope Warner Bros. will quickly announce they’ve greenlit Dune: Part Two so we’re not left wandering the Arrakis desert beside Paul for long.

GRADE: A-

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some disturbing images, sequences of strong violence, and suggestive material

Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes

Release Date: October 22, 2021