DUNE Review; "Feels More Like The Prologue To A Must-See Second Half Than A Perfect Film In Its Own Right"
Dune arrives in theaters and on HBO Max later this week, but is the positive buzz warranted? While this is certainly a very special movie, it's also one that blatantly feels like a "Part One" story...
Hindsight is 20/20, and you have to believe Warner Bros. would have held off on making its entire 2021 slate available on HBO Max the same day movies arrive in theaters had they predicted the domestic box office’s recent revival. With some titles, that dual release really doesn’t matter, but for Dune - which is billed as "Part One" mere minutes in - that revenue is crucial in order to give director Denis Villeneuve the opportunity to complete his vision and tell this story in its entirety. Why are we already talking about a sequel? Well, make no mistake about it; Dune is half of a much bigger movie, and while there’s plenty to love about this sweeping epic, it doesn’t necessarily make for the most satisfying viewing experience regardless of how big the screen you watch it on is.
Villeneuve, who penned the screenplay alongside Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, doesn’t give much thought to those unfamiliar with Frank Herbert’s novel (or previous adaptations), making Dune a far cry from the commercially friendly blockbuster Warner Bros. has promoted it as. There’s a lot to unpack here with the complicated mythology, and despite a 155-minute runtime, not much of that is devoted to providing backstory and explanations for some of the stranger aspects of this world. It’s lucky then that Dune is so compelling from the very start; it certainly requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated, but as the action intensifies, you’ll find yourself full drawn into the warring clans, Arrakis and, crucially, the story of Paul Atreides.
Timothée Chalamet is a talent, but puts himself on the map in a big way here with a performance that will draw you in and keep you invested from start to finish. Balancing being the ducal heir of House Atreides and the emergence of abilities that could change everything about the world he knows, Paul is a complex character who required an actor capable of delivering a layered, enthralling performance. Chalamet proves himself perfect for that. Far from a traditional action hero, but still very much the lead protagonist a movie like Dune needs, this is some of his best work to date. Rebecca Ferguson is equally as captivating as Lady Jessica, though it feels like the best is yet to come from her. The same could be said of the other performers clearly being saved for bigger roles in the sequel (we won’t spoil who they are), but you’ll walk away suitably impressed by the stellar work of actors like Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, and Javier Bardem.
It’s unfortunate that neither Zendaya nor Dave Bautista receives more screentime because both impress here; once again, that’s a result of this basically being half a movie. It’s just lucky the rest of the ensemble is so damn incredible because these two being what some will perceive as "wasted" is easy enough to forgive. Still, it's a shame.
Visually, Dune is impressive, but there are a handful of times the visual effects let down everything else that’s playing out around them. It’s hard not to be left in awe at the scale of the worlds we visit, while character and costume design is also undeniably impressive. However, some locations and ships do look like they’ve just been placed on top of a real location and blatantly look like they’ve originated from inside a computer. That doesn’t necessarily hurt how immersive the story is, but this is by no means some sort of visually stunning masterpiece that will leave you awed. Greig Fraser’s cinematography, however, will, and the movie is often at its best in the quieter, intimate moments. Still, as with Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve proves himself more than capable of delivering blockbuster action, and if that’s solely what you’re looking for, you won’t ever be bored. Engrossing, thrilling, and monumental in equal measure, the movie is a little humourless, but is exciting and captivating enough to make up for a lack of laughs.
Dune is a very good movie and, if that "Part Two" ever materialises, it will likely be elevated into a great one. Unlike other "Part Ones" that were clearly meant to have a sequel - Star Wars, Avengers: Infinity War, and even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows all spring to mind - this isn’t necessarily a wholly satisfying experience as a standalone feature. The entire movie is spent getting us to a point that sets the stage for what promises to be an even better sequel, and while we can certainly appreciate what a well-crafted, wonderfully acted sci-fi epic this is, it does feel like something that would have worked better as TV series. If nothing else, knowing the sequel had been shot or was on the way would make this a somewhat less frustrating experience, but as things stand, it feels like the best is still yet to come...hopefully.
Dune is every bit as magnificent as you’ve been led to believe, but feels more like the prologue to a must-see second half (that may or may not happen) than a perfect film in its own right. Aside from that, though, it rarely disappoints.