REVIEW: Dune an incomplete masterpiece

Dune is directed by Denis Villeneuve and is the first part of his highly anticipated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s beloved novel of the same name.

This marks Villeneuve’s third venture into science fiction following 2016’s Arrival and 2017’s critically acclaimed Blade Runner 2049. These films, as well as his previous endeavours such as Enemy, Sicario and Prisoners, ground the audience in mature and masterfully crafted cinematic experiences, and Dune is no exception. 

It follows the journey of young protagonist Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) as he and his family transition from their comfortable watery planet of Caladan to the bare and bleak desert planet Arrakis, otherwise known as Dune. Here the Atreides family is entrusted with the protection of the single most valuable resource in the universe, while Paul discovers what may or may not be his dawning destiny. 

There has been a lot of speculation and trepidation in regards to how well Frank Herbert’s novel would translate to the big screen. In the past filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch have attempted to get this story on camera, leading to cancelled productions or critically slammed flops. 

Many believe that Dune is un-adaptable, as it is one of the most complex and intricate science fiction novels ever written. There is a vast range of characters, storylines and lore which spans hundreds of pages. This has led audiences to believe that it is impossible to do the story justice in a single film. Hence Villeneuve has decided to split the story into two halves. 

Villeneuve has done an excellent job trimming the fat. Dune is a film that deals with many complex issues, commentaries and scenarios, but it never loses sight of its central characters. Although the story is rich in lore, Villeneuve takes a straight path through it, focusing on the characters and the elements that matter most. This helps the audience follow the plot in a clear and concise way, even to those who have never read or watched previous incarnations of Dune. This was an issue that greatly hindered Lynch’s adaptation. 

As it has come to be expected with Villeneuve, the visuals are truly breath taking. Partnering with Rogue One cinematographer Greig Fraser, the visual effects and cinematography create a spectacular sense of scale and depth. Villeneuve and Fraser masterfully craft an awesome feeling of scope, be it a majestic spacecraft looming over a planet, or a sand-worm emerging from the ground filling all corners of the screen. 

This is by far the best looking science fiction movie in years. You never for a moment believe that what you are viewing is artificial. It feels real, it feels grand, and it elevates the story to an awe inspiring and mighty epic. From start to finish, this film is a feast for the eyes. And that is before discussing the immaculate sound design. 

There are times where the sound design is even more impactful than the visuals themselves. The way Villeneuve uses voices, which sometimes act as jump-scares, send chills down the audience’s spine. The underlying bass in the background, slowly builds up a sense of dread and anxiety, particularly for those who have read the book, those who know what is about to follow. 

This of course is beautifully contrasted with Hans Zimmer’s score. Zimmer was offered to compose music for Christopher Nolan’s last film Tenet, but turned it down to work on Dune, as he claims it has been a lifelong dream to score an adaption of Herbert’s novel. Listening to the film’s music, it is clear that Zimmer is just as passionate as Villeneuve himself.

This is one of Zimmer’s most powerful and unique musical scores to date. While still recognisable as his own, the music is vastly different to anything that has been heard from him before. The score really elevates the entire film and brings the desert to life.

Villeneuve is master of tension building, and really knows how to create a sense of dread. One scene in particular being the first appearance of the sand-worm. The payoff alone is powerful enough, but the slow build of dread and horror leading up to its arrival, aided by humongous sounds and dazzling images, is masterful. It is a scene that leaves you with white knuckles.  

Everything about Dune feels alien, otherworldly and unique. It has been said many times by Villeneuve and his cast members, but this really is a film made for the cinema. One of the largest critiques of Dune is just how well it will translate to television. If you haven’t seen this film on a enormous screen with a bone crushing sound system, you really haven’t experienced the film the way it was intended. 

Watching Dune in a cinema, it is clear just how much love, care and attention was put into it. Every shot seems beautifully calculated, every sound perfectly mixed. This is definitely a love letter to Herbert and his novel. The passion for the source material oozes from of the screen, not just on Villeneuve’s part, but the entire production. Everyone delivers 110 per cent, everyone brings a sense of passion and dedication to the film, and it shows.

The cast is also built from an exquisite ensemble. From Oscar Isaac’s collected and wise Duke Leto, Josh Brolin’s hard and ready Gurney Halleck, and Jason Mamoa’s fierce and scene stealing Duncan Idaho.

Stellan Skarsgård also provides one of his most sinister and mortifying performances yet as antagonist Baron Harkonen. This is a performance that has clearly taken a great deal of inspiration from Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, as appose to previous depictions of the Baron. Skarsgård’s presence fills the screen and is appropriately unpleasant and menacing in all the right ways.  

However, despite a gargantuan cast, the true stars are Chalamet’s Paul and Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica. Chalamet and Ferguson both perfectly embody the tone and the spirit of the book. Not only do they bring their own take and spin on the characters, they bring Herbert’s pages to life. The film primarily focuses on their journey through this harsh and unforgiving landscape. The entire story lies on their shoulders, and they carry it superbly. 

There is not a single mediocre performance, not one lousy effect, this is cinema at its finest. However, the film has one very big problem, it’s incomplete. Despite a runtime surpassing two and half hours, this is essentially half a movie. With such an incredible build up and a very well crafted world, this film depends entirely on the second half delivering. With part two now officially green-lit, Villeneuve will get his chance to complete his version of Herbert’s story. However, in order for this film to retain its merit, the second has to live up to and maintain this level of quality.

This is the film’s biggest issue. Despite an incredible set up, the audience is yet to see the payoff. There are huge mountains Villeneuve has to scale, and if he fails, it could ruin everything this film has worked for. That being said, Villeneuve has proven himself time and time again to be one of the best filmmakers working today. 

Despite not being complete, Dune is a cinematic experience like no other. It has taken themes from films and stories that we have seen before and brings them together in a fresh and original way. It borrows elements from Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Game of Thrones, but combines them to create a mature and thought provoking experience that puts faith and trust in the audience’s intelligence. If you are looking for a genuine and powerful cinematic experience, Dune, though incomplete, is the perfect film. 

Dune is currently playing at Kingston Odeon

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