NYFF Review: ‘Dune’ is One of the Best Sci-Fi Films Since 1983
Anticipation is the enjoyment-killer. While many feared this would be the case for Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of the revered 1965 Frank Herbert novel, Dune (Part I) exceeds even the highest of expectations, delivering a true sci-fi epic for the ages: if we get a part two, that is. Make no mistake, Dune is a triumph in its own right, featuring rich world-building and character work, but it is clear that the film is only telling a piece of the story, acknowledged by the movie itself within one of the final lines of dialogue. We follow the Atreides family in the distant future as they’ve been stationed on Planet Arrakis, home to the most valuable resource in the Galactic Empire: spice. What unfolds is a study on the detrimental nature of politics and its impact on the human psyche.
Villeneuve has been vocal about his passion for Herbert's story for years. He’s also firmly shared his belief that Dune is meant to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and the visionary director is undeniably correct. Not just for the crisp lighting and stunning visuals, which were shot on location in the beautiful deserts of Jordan, but for Hans Zimmer’s exquisitely unique score as well. To set the music apart from other sci-fi adventures, Zimmer made use of the most powerful instrument of all in a range of unique ways: the human voice. While it lacks the catchy nature of John Williams’ Star Wars theme, Dune’s music perfectly (and yes, I mean perfectly) invokes the tone of the film, and listening on anything but a full surround sound system is a disservice to the experience.
We open with an expository sequence featuring Zendaya (immediately clueing the audience in on the main conflict of the series) before discovering that this is just the latest in a series of Paul's (Timotheé Chalamet) recurring dreams of the future. Cut to the dinner table, where Lady Atreides coaxes the boy to utilize his gift of "The Voice" before Paul sees himself off to study up on history. These short, yet powerful scenes in the opening moments of the film give the viewer a window into who exactly our hero is. This is effectively conveyed by Chalamet's simple yet gripping portrayal of a teenager under the crippling pressure of growing into the position of a leader. Paul has found himself consumed by the seemingly insurmountable task of one day taking his father's mantle, to the point where he can't so much as find an escape during his hours of rest.
Naturally, the strength of the casting is not solely limited to Chalamet, featuring other members such as Oscar Issac, Stellan Skarsgård, and Zendaya, all of which throw themselves into their personas. Skarsgård plays a delightfully cryptic and creepy villain, quite reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt from Return of the Jedi, while Issac shares a cold yet loving bond with Paul Atreides. Dave Bautista, on the other hand, sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison. He has yet to put his acting chops on full display, so while disappointing, it was unsurprising.
Speaking of Return of the Jedi, I firmly believe that Dune is one of the first sci-fi films since 1983 to come close to the realm of greatness achieved by George Lucas in the original Star Wars trilogy. One aspect that greatly assists in achieving this is the costume and set design. The “Stillsuits” feel otherworldly, and the domains of Atreides and Harkonnen are appropriately eerie, to name a few examples. Each frame feels meticulously arranged to reveal more about our heroes and increase intrigue about the looming antagonists.
As masterful as it is, Dune is not without its shortcomings. While completely necessary to progress the story, you can’t help but feel it loses some of its ingenuity in the war sequences, which are mainly bland VFX-driven battles. Luckily, the plot is entrancing enough that this nitpick doesn’t hurt the overall experience much. One element which didn't bother me, but will sour some viewers, is the story structure. Dune, by nature, is what many would refer to as “high-concept.” I don’t deny this, and those looking for a popcorn flick will likely leave confused and disappointed, especially given its abrupt ending. The film expects your undivided attention (another reason to watch in a theater), especially from those who have not read the books. I was unfamiliar with the tale, save for my sneak preview back in July, and I had no trouble understanding, but the dense plot will likely feel too convoluted for some.