MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Epic Sci-Fi/ Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Babs Olusanmokun, Benjamin Clementine/ Runtime: 155 minutes
For what it’s worth I would just like to start this review off by saying that iconic film helmer Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 take on the iconic sci-fi saga Dune is both the slice of cinematic pie that I hoped and prayed with a fervent passion that it would be…..whilst also being the slice of cinematic pie I was worried it would be as well. In regards to the former, I can honestly say that one of the reasons the source material is so respected is because of how richly detailed the world of the story is. In that respect, this adaptation, more so than even the cult favorite take from the 80s, has the perseverance and the budget to properly give this story the astonishing and downright incredible reality it so rightfully deserves. Not only the cast is top-notch in every sense of the word, but the thematic concepts are showcased brilliantly, and every image you see on screen manages to literally take you to a world you have never seen before. In other words: this slice of cinematic pie is just about everything that a take on the first half of this iconic narrative needed to be. At the same time though this is where this slice of cinematic pie runs into trouble. That’s because due to being an adaptation of only the first half of the story, it does feel like the narrative is woefully incomplete and you are left with an overwhelming urge to see a Part 2 right away. Yet even with that knowledge in mind, there is no denying that the 2021 take on Dune is a fantastic and truly incredible film that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you are comfortable seeing it on and does a beautiful job at establishing a solid foundation for this truly distinct universe to build off of. At the same time however, it also still manages to give off the vibe that what we are enjoying is a truly exquisite appetizer since the main course has still got a few more hours to go in the oven.
The plot is as follows: Dune transports the movie goer across the vast reaches of both space and time to the far-off future year of 10191 and to a location known as Caladan. A planet which we soon learn is the gorgeous home world of a royal family known as the House of Atreides that is led by the courageous and virtuous Duke Leto. Yet even though the royal family and those under them all have made a vow of undying fealty to the Emperor of the galaxy, there is still nevertheless an awareness that the ever-increasing level of both power and influence that Atreides is acquiring is starting to throw a shadow over the amounts of both held by the Emperor. It is because of his subtle fear in regards to what could happen if the balance of power continues to shift in their favor that we see the Emperor decide to engage in some sinister scheming of a political nature to thwart it. Most notably of these is an under the radar alliance with both the diabolical House of Harkonnen, ruled over by the menacing and downright physically giant in certain aspects Baron Harkonnen and his equally as ruthless nephew Glossu Rabban, as well as a mysterious religious group known as the Bene Geserit which is headed by the merciless and cold Gaius Helen Mohiam. Thus we see a plot is placed into motion which gets underway when we see Atreides is “awarded” control of a planet known as Arrakis. A desolate, hot, miserable desert landscape complete with giant sandworms that is also the only place where one can find this galaxy’s single most valuable resource: melange, also known as spice. A powdered narcotic that is not only crucial for human longevity, but is also integral for traveling through space as well as being rumored to give people enhanced abilities. Thus, from the perspective of the Duke’s son Paul and the boy’s mom/ the Duke’s most devoted concubine Lady Jessica, we see the Atreides clan head to their new domain fully aware of the machinations being plotted against them, but with every intention in mind to throw those plans for a curve. A goal that will require the aid of the natives of Arrakis known as the Fremen. Indeed whereas the Harkonnens spent their rule imprisoning and killing these people off, the Atreides desire to partner up with them and combined create a partnership that no one can compete with. However things soon go from bad to downright dire when an unexpected betrayal results in a visceral and ruthless attack from the Harkonnen as well as several squads of the Emperor’s elite soldiers. An attack that not only has tragic consequences, but which also leaves the Atreides clan in complete and utter disarray and their armed forces all but annihilated. Thus we see that with no other options available to them, our young hero and his mom must go on the run out in the desert wastelands in order to try and find both the Fremen as well as an enigmatic young lady by the name of Chani who has of late been popping up in dreams of our intrepid hero’s prophecy-laden dreams at night in order to form an alliance that will change not only the planet, but potentially the balance of power in the galaxy forever.
Now more than anything else, it is both how intricate the narrative is as well as the sheer size and scope of the world within the narrative that are perhaps the 2 big reasons why for a long time Dune has been viewed by everyone from fans to literary scholars as a book that would be downright difficult if not impossible to bring vividly to life in a way that is both respectful and cinematic. Astonishingly, it seems that film helmer Denis Villeneuve and the creative team at his disposal have managed to solve this riddle with their handle on the material and in the process have molded a masterpiece that is astonishingly yet also delightfully loyal to not only how things play out in the novel, but also in the spirit of the source material as well. Sure some scenes have placed elsewhere, some minor things altered, and a few key characters put by the wayside so they can get proper time to shine in a Part 2. Other than that however, this film is by and large quite incredibly blessed with the gift of taking this story from novel to film in a way that is nowhere near as compromised as it could have been. Now I have no doubt that one of the biggest challenges this adaptation had to overcome most assuredly was the combat between the scope of the source material vs. the right tempo at which to tell the story since showing off just how nuanced and massive this universe is could potentially be quite cumbersome to the narrative. Thankfully the creative team do a wonderful job of keeping the movie rolling along without having to toss anything on the bonfire along the way. Indeed the simultaneous reveal of just who our characters and the narrative they are embroiled in reveal themselves in wonderful synchronicity so you are both riveted by all the diabolical machinations and scheming taking place whilst also becoming invested in the characters. With that last aspect in mind, it certainly doesn’t hurt that this film’s cast is phenomenally selected as everyone involved really is able to get to the heart of just what role they are in. Indeed as the trio at the head of the table we see that Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac all do wonderful work with Chalamet giving us a take on Paul that might (note I said might) be better than Kyle MacLachlan, Ferguson giving us a motherly yet also fiercely devoted Lady Jessica, and Isaac proving to be spot-on in his fatherly yet also diplomatic and noble take of Duke Leto. Yet even beyond this trinity of powerhouse performances, we as movie goers are able to see that even among the supporting cast there really isn’t an outlier to be found as Josh Brolin is wonderfully fierce and yet also sneakily snarky from time to time as Gurney Halleck, Jason Momoa is just downright perfectly cast as top Atreides warrior/ surrogate older brother of sorts to Paul Duncan Idaho, Dave Bautista is just wonderfully ruthless as Glossu even if I wish he was in this for more than 25-30 minutes tops, Stellan Skarsgard is downright chilling and hard to look at as Baron Harkonnen, and Javier Bardem and Zendaya are perfectly cast as the driven yet battle-worn Stilgar and the enigmatic Chani respectively among others.
Now as nuanced as the narrative may be, and with the amount of characters that are at play in this film, it really is fairly simple to immerse yourself into the world due to how extraordinarily it’s realized. Of course this should come as no surprise given what Villenueve has previously given us (Blade Runner 2049, Sicario, or Prisoners anyone?), but that still doesn’t take away from his triumph here. I mean this universe is not one that is way too complex technologically speaking for its own good, but at the same time you do feel like you are catching a glimpse at where things might be one day and that’s a riveting thing to behold. I mean everything in virtually every creative department from the cinematography to the design work on such things as the ornithopters to the costumes and even the infamous sandworms that live under the desert sands of Arrakis and whose eventual reveal is easily far and away one of the definitive highlights of the 2nd half of this film are all realized so beautifully that this is just as much a feast for the eyes as much as it is for the mind and the ears with that last organ being treated to easily one of the finest scores that legendary composer Hans Zimmer (Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy) has ever managed to conjure up.
All in all for how phenomenal and just downright well done the 2021 take this adaptation of Dune turns out to be, there is still something fairly distinct about it which I feel is worth concluding this review with. That being that Dune “2021” is on course to be at the heart of a debate that has been occurring in regards to no less a film than The Empire Strikes Back since that film’s release 42 years ago. That debate being that although quite a few view, and rightfully so, that movie as one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, it also is the recipient of a legit gripe in that it really doesn’t feel like it has a thorough narrative it can call its own. The same I assure you can most definitely be said here. That’s because as jaw dropping, riveting, and aspiring as this slice of cinematic pie turns out to be, it also is stricken to some degree by literally announcing itself as only being part 1 of the overall narrative. As such, you should know by the very nature of being a first part that this film doesn’t provide a lot in terms of resolution for either the thematic concepts or the more significant narrative and/or character arcs. Indeed it most assuredly is a cinematic outing all its own and one that you should definitely see, but it also cannot be denied that at some point this film will need to be reevaluated when the rest of Villeneuve’s take is given to the world. A take that I pray to the movie gods we get to witness on a big screen significantly sooner rather than later. Until this prayer is answered however, we must (even if it’s fairly begrudgingly) accept that this 2021 take on Dune exists on its own as a cinematic achievement that deserves to be given the highest amount of respect possible. Indeed Denis Villeneuve’s take on this legendary property is the cinematic adaptation that fans have been patiently waiting all these years for and their patience has been well rewarded. Suffice it to say I end this review with a simple plea. That being please please if you love this story as much as I do then definitely see this movie as many times as you can possibly handle and if possible on the biggest screen possible. Not only so you can see this story the way it deserves to be seen, but so that way Warner Brothers and all the people behind the scenes are able to see that this is one story that deserves a chance to continue from where it left off. On a scale of 1-5 I give Dune “2021” a solid 4.5 out of 5.