Before I saw Dune, I had been thinking about the fact that I haven’t seen any new releases lately that warranted a five-star rating. I’ve given a lot of four-and-a-half star ratings in the last couple of years, but not since Waves and Parasite towards the end of 2019 did I give a five-star score. I wasn’t even thinking about this in the context of Dune, but it was apt timing since Dune became the first new release to get that five-star rating in almost two years.
Dune is magnificently crafted, visually awe-inspiring, and creates the kind of feeling that only something like The Lord of the Rings or the original Star Wars could. I saw many people making that exact point in the lead up to its release, and I thought there was no way it was possible, and that it was typical hype building. But it’s absolutely true. Dune is a movie with such a wide-ranging scope, but also such an intimate and personal feel. Its blend of these two aspects makes it truly stand out from any movie of this scale in the last 20 years.
I think the first thing you need to discuss when talking about Dune is its story. It’s packed to the brim with ideas, characters, themes, and world building, and for the most part, they all work. At the center is the Atreides family, one of the two large, powerful families in the galaxy (along with the Harkonnens). The emperor has sent the Atreides — Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and their son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) — from their home planet of Caladan to the desert planet of Arrakis to oversee the happenings around spice, the most valuable element in the entire galaxy. The Atreides are tasked with taking over for the Harkonnens on Arrakis in overseeing both the spice trade and the Fremen, the Arrakeen natives, and to put it lightly, Barron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) isn’t happy about this. All the while, Paul, who’s our main character, has to wrestle with the wishes of his mother, his father, and his potential to be this fictional world’s version of “The Chosen One.”
Yes, it seems like a lot, but director Denis Villeneuve — or as I now like to call him Dune-is — has been thinking about this movie for 40 years, since he read the book for the first time at the age of 14. And right there is exactly what makes this film so special. This is a lifelong passion project for Villeneuve, who is without a doubt one of the most talented filmmakers working today. He knows the ins and outs of filmmaking and he has the deep passion for the source material, and that drips from every frame of this movie. Like with Rings, this doesn’t have the feel of a studio wanting to move forward with a project that will generate the most revenue and then picking a director. Instead, it feels like Villeneuve knew exactly how he wanted to make this movie, and he proved himself as capable with his past films, so he made something truly special. It has the feel of a Villeneuve movie — long, patient shots, intentional pacing, an emphasis on humanity — and that was the secret to making it work. He’s made a lot of great movies, but he’s at his absolute best with Dune.
Again, I never thought something could come close feeling like Rings or Star Wars, but Dune does. It’s so self-contained in its creation, and only it seems to be aware of itself, instead of trying to live up to something. I believe Villeneuve’s had this in his mind for decades, and he finally got to create it for the big screen.
And for the big screen this was made. I’m not going to tell you that you need to go see this on the biggest screen possible — especially with a pandemic still raging — but it will certainly enhance your experience. With the IMAX shots and the state-of-the-art sound systems, I experienced a type of cinematic immersion unlike any other. I was on Arrakis. I was in Paul’s mind. I experienced the heartache and elation that the characters experience. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Thanks to the visual and tonal flair that Villeneuve brings along with the always great music of Hans Zimmer, you’ll be transported for the entire two hours and 35 minutes. Zimmer isn’t bringing the thumping, percussive sound of the Batman movies or Inception and he isn’t creating an all-timer ear worm-y score like Pirates of the Caribbean or Gladiator. Instead, he’s going back to what worked last time he teamed up with Villeneuve and is making something truly atmospheric and choral that will engross you in the world.
The film wears its humongous themes on its sleeve and doesn’t shy away from their implications or the thoughts and questions they raise. It’s about religion, colonialism, wealth disparity, and quality of life. It’s also about the way that the powerful impose their will on the powerless without a thought towards the implications of their actions. It’s a true marvel that Villeneuve is able to weave all of these elements into his narrative coherently and effectively, and it’s just a testament to his ability as a director.
But even with its huge, edge-of-your-seat feel, Dune is still deeply personal. We stick with Paul for most of the runtime and we dive into his psyche. Frank Herbert’s book on which the movie is based uses a heavy amount of internal monologue from many different characters, but the film mostly just narrows it down to Paul. He of course struggles with his natural leading abilities, but there are also struggles that are truly human and relatable, like trying to understand your place in the world, the pressures that other put on you to be who they want you to be, and how that collides with figuring out who you are divorced from that. It’s a wide range of feelings and emotions, but Chalamet portrays them with predictable aptitude.
If there’s an IP franchise character that’s perfect for indie darling Timothée Chalamet to get his feet wet, it’s Paul Atreides. Paul has the depth and complexity of a typical Chalamet character, but he’s thrown into the mega-budget tentpole movie world. It would be easy for Chalamet to crumble under pressure, but he doesn’t seem to flinch as he takes the role in stride.
It’s the same for the rest of the insanely talented and famous all-star cast as well. Ferguson, Isaac, Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, and Javier Bardem are no strangers to big time movies like this and they fit in like puzzle pieces. Ferguson is the standout among the more seasoned big names because, on top of everything else Dune is about, a large portion of it is a mother-son story. Ferguson and Chalamet play off each other perfectly, and it almost feels like a real parent-child relationship.
Now, it’s not clear at all from the marketing, but Dune is actually Dune: Part One. It only adapts roughly two-thirds of the original novel, but that doesn’t mean it feels incomplete. It’s a complete story that features lots of cliffhangers for the hopefully inevitable Part Two. It feels like The Fellowship of the Ring — an incredible feat of filmmaking and storytelling that will be nominated for Best Picture, along with many other Oscars. But it’s painfully obvious there’s more to come. And I only say painful because I want to see Part Two tomorrow.
Sadly, I’m too young to have fully experienced the hype around the release of The Lord of the Rings, but from what I gather, Dune has provided a feeling similar to what many people enjoyed from Rings: an incredible, undeniable first chapter in a special saga. Now, all I want to do is dive into the books and fully prepare myself for Part Two. I read everything the film covers in advance of its release, and it enhanced my viewing experience, but I think the film will help to enhance my reading experience as well. Because Dune is something special. It’s a towering cinematic achievement that doesn’t come around every year. It barely comes around every decade. It’s a special film in its own right, but now I just can’t wait for Part Two.