Saturday, October 16, 2021

Movie Review: DUNE (2021)

Thanks to an online group I'm in, I managed to get into an early screening of the 2021 adaptation of Frank Herbert's science fiction classic Dune. I'd seen the 1980s film (and even participated in a podcast about it) and the early 2000s miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel, so I was definitely looking forward to it getting the Lord of the Rings treatment.

(Seriously, owing to COVID concerns I said I'd see the movie in a spacesuit if I needed to.)

So how was it when I finally got to see it nearly a year after the original release date? Here we go...

The Plot

In a space empire thousands of years in the future, the noble House Atreides headed by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is granted the planet Arrakis as a fief by the Emperor Shaddam IV, taking it away from rival House Harkonnen headed by the nefarious Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). Arrakis is the sole source of the spice melange, which makes interstellar travel possible, and it is extraordinarily valuable. However, it's a trap--the jealous emperor seeks to destroy Duke Leto, whom he views as a rival.

Into this comes Leto's son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) by his Bene Gesserit (a sort of order of space witches) concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Trained by his mother in Bene Gesserit techniques like the commanding Voice, he's been having visions of the future, including the young woman Chani (Zendaya), a warrior from Arrakis's native Fremen people. 

When the emperor's nefarious plot goes into motion, will he be able to draw on the "desert power" envisioned by his father?

The Good

*The cinematography of this movie is quite simply awesome. It is absolutely a magnificently beautiful film, and I cannot say this enough. Caladan, the Atreides homeworld, is a beautiful place of magnificent coasts and oceans, while the Harkonnens rule over a polluted urban hellscape. Salusa Secundus, where the emperor draws his elite Sardaukar armies, is the unholy admixture of the two. They manage to make the Sardaukar disturbing, and that's good.

*One of the great flaws of the 1984 adaptation was how clumsily it handled the exposition needed for this gigantic science fiction universe, and that's not the case here. The filmmakers manage to convey so much with shots or small sequences. For example, rather than explaining the whole back-story about how too-advanced computers are illegal and how specially-trained humans known as Mentats have replaced them, we just see Atreides Mentat Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) do this peculiar thing with his eyes a couple times, the same with the Harkonnen Mentat Piter de Vries (David Dastmalchian). That the Atreides are benign to their subjects and the Harkonnens harsh and cruel is also show rather than told--Duke Leto is free and easy with visitors on his island paradise and on Arrakis, while people cringe before the Baron and his beastly nephew Glossu "Beast" Rabban (Dave Bautista). And the issues between Jessica and the rest of the Bene Gesserit are handled in glances and a short conversation rather than blah-blah-blah.

*There are some subtle touches of characterization as well, like how in a father-son talk Leto tells Paul that he didn't want to be duke he wanted to be a pilot...and his own father was cool with this, knowing how this would ultimately bring him around to his responsibilities "another way." That skill with piloting comes in handy for several sequences in the film, for both the father and the son. And Leto's father was killed fighting bulls for the entertainment of his subjects--the displayed head of said bull keeps popping up in ominous ways I thought were clever.

*I saw this in IMAX and that's definitely where to see it. Not only will you get the full scope of the visuals, but you'll also get the full force of the soundtrack. Ye gods, the soundtrack. It will crush the life out of you, in a good way.

*The acting of the main characters is impressive. Chalamet does a good job of portraying the teen Paul, portraying his rebelliousness, emotional sensitivity, and giftedness, as well as the steel within that will propel him to his destiny. Isaac is appropriately noble as Duke Leto, while Ferguson is well-cast as Jessica. And although I was skeptical of gender-flipping the Imperial scientist Liet Kynes (the filmmakers came up with this ridiculous reasoning about how women are naturally peacemakers between cultures), I liked Sharon Duncan-Brewster's portrayal, especially later in the film. Josh Brolin does a good job conveying the intensity of Atreides weapons-master and musician Gurney Halleck, while Jason Momoa definitely impresses as the jocular warrior Duncan Idaho.

*The battle sequences are also quite impressive. In the Dune world, personal shielding has reduced firearms to a secondary role at best and much fighting is done with swords. The way the battles take this into account and the way the fight scenes are choreographed is pretty cool.

The Bad 

*Even though they're adapting only the first part of the book, the movie is still very, very long at just over two and a half hours. It starts to drag a couple hours in. That was the single biggest flaw, and kind of a substantial one.

*And even though this is the first half of the book, they still have to leave stuff out. One character who has a lot of internal turmoil is reduced to a non-entity despite their major role in events, as is another character whose actions tie in. Vague to avoid spoilers. :) And I'm wondering if they're consolidating the Harkonnen nephews--we meet Rabban but not Feyd-Rautha, the smarter and more dangerous of the two. Feyd-Rautha isn't to my recollection even mentioned.

*Some of the characters' speech comes off as a bit too present-day for thousands of years in the future.

The Verdict

8.0 out of 10. See it. Go see it. Help it make enough money that we can see the rest of the story on-screen to this degree of glory. Given how the second third to half of the story focuses on the war against the Harkonnens and the Empire, it will almost certainly avoid this film's problem of being too slow-moving.