- December 6, 2017
HBO Max, rated PG-13, 155 minutes
This isn't horror so let's get that out of the way. I'm breaking my own rule here. I would feel bad about it if "Dune" weren't such a staggering experience for the eyes, ears and mind. Plus it's sci-fi and sci-fi is scary to some people, right? Right? The villain (Stellan Skarsgard) is a ghastly man who speaks in guttural croaks and can fly and takes healing baths in black goo, does that satisfy you? Great.
I'm going to bend another of my rules here and encourage you to see this on an IMAX screen. Like, I am *very strongly* encouraging you to see this on the largest screen possible. It is streaming on HBO Max, so if you don't feel comfortable returning to theaters yet, you do have that option and thus "Dune" is Cringe/Binge Blog eligible. But … I think you're robbing yourself of some of the experience if you don't see this in a theater at least once.
Why? Let's start by zooming out a bit. For those that are reading this and thinking, "OK, fine, but what actually is 'Dune'?" I will explain. "Dune" is a 1965 science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert. It is the best-selling science fiction novel in history. If you have never heard of it before the film's recent marketing blitz, that is because you are not a real nerd. No judgement in that statement on either side, by the way; it's just true. "Dune" is so dense a text that the genius that is David Lynch tried to adapt it in 1984 and largely failed. It was both a critical and a box office failure. Other filmmakers have also tried to adapt the material, but those attempts have resulted in zero more movies. The property was essentially labeled unfilmable.
Until now. Until modern sci-fi marvel Denis Villeneuve ("Arrival," "Blade Runner 2049") decided he wanted his shot to tell the story of Paul Atreides and the Fremen and the Bene Gesserit and the planet Arrakis. Do those terms overwhelm you? You should probably get used to that. Villeneuve's "Dune" attempts to make the material as accessible as possible, but that's like trying to sand down a lightsaber. For some, the introduction of all this jargon will be an impasse to their enjoyment. I can't say those feelings are wrong. But if you're a curious sort, if you give yourself over to the material and seek understanding, there's so much beauty to be found in this strange new world. When you leave the theater, it might be you whispering about the Kwisatz Haderach under your breath.
I'll try to help you get started. Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) is the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (a stunning Rebecca Ferguson). The Duke is the ruler of House Atreides, one of several families vying for power under the Padishah Empire. At the film's beginning, the Atreides are preparing to move to the planet Arrakis, a world of sand, (massive) sandworms and spice, which in this case refers to an addictive drug called Melange that also allows space pilots called Navigators to see the way through space during travel. In other words, in a universe where space travel is vital, spice is quite valuable and Arrakis is the only place it is found. The planet was gifted to House Atreides by the Empire, but gifted should probably be in quotes; in reality, the Atreides are walking into a trap devised to get rid of them and their ambitions. The Duke senses this, but makes the move anyway; he's a man of honor, so if he goes down, he'll go down with nobility.
Plus, he has his son. The Atreides have reason to believe that Paul might be the Kwisatz Haderach, a person capable of seeing into both the past and the future and bringing the two together.
Part of what makes "Dune" succeed where other adaptations failed is Villeneuve's willingness to split the story into parts. Indeed, this film's title card reads "Dune: Part One." It gives the film more time to focus on what it wants to say, which is not an easy task. The source material touches on imperialism, environmentalism and religion, but more than anything, it is a subversion of the "chosen one" trope. This movie, part one, focuses on Paul Atreides grappling with his status as a prophetic savior. He's intrigued by it but doesn't really believe it. He's also a little scared by it, as is his mother. While it's true that Paul begins to figure things out by the end of the film, there are also signs that something unsettling may be in his future in part two.
That's as clear as I can set up the story. Again, it's not for everyone and that's OK. But even if you don't care about any of that, you can find things to love here. All of the A-list actors are on the top of their game, even ones like Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista, who only have a few scenes in part one. Villeneuve's best attribute is his sense of scale. He's a master of making things feel massive, whether those things are spaceships or sandworms. And while he certainly succeeds with that again in "Dune," he also takes the time to make sure certain things feel miniature — a baby desert mouse running across endless seas of sand or a needle-thin killing machine the size of a mosquito. The images he captures are remarkable.
Hans Zimmer has received a bit of a reputation for making things go "BWAAAAAAAAAAH! BWAAAAAAAAH!" in his recent film scores. I can't say he *doesn't* do that here, but when mixed in with so many different textures, choral chants and bagpipes among them, it just sounds right. This is a loud ass movie, except when it's not. The few sequences where the score drops out completely are some of the most effective in the film because both we and the characters get a chance to breathe.
I could go on, but I won't. You know what you need to know. Personally, "Dune" is everything I want in a blockbuster film. I laughed and I could have cried (but, y'know, I was in public). Mostly though, I sat in awe. I wanted to stay in the world Villeneuve created for as long as possible. There might be better films released in 2021, but I doubt there will be anything as transportive. Unlike how superhero and "Star Wars" films feel now, "Dune" feels like an event. It sparked a wonder in me. I'm thankful for that.
So please watch it. Warner Bros. has been teasing an announcement of Dune: Part Two, but it's not yet received a green light. God knows we need to let Villeneuve see this story to the end.