In many ways Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is the very reason we have movies. I was in the theater, surround sound booming and I thought:
“Wow. This is what a movie should feel like. This is why we go to the movies.”
Dune is big on feel. The best thing about it is how it builds a certain atmosphere, using every tool at its disposal, and not since the early days of Star Wars have I felt so carried away, so transported to a new and strange world.
I haven’t read the books, so if you’re a book reader, you’ll likely have a very different experience than I did. I suggest popping over here to read an excellent review from a book reader and one of the sci-fi junkies I respect the most.
If you’re not a book reader and you go in cold? You’re in for an experience.
The scope of Dune is vast. We shift from planet to planet in what appears to be some form of galactic empire, though the center of our focus is the character of Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, the presumptive heir of what appears to be a powerful and noble family.
House Atreides is run by his father Duke Leto, played by the painfully gorgeous Oscar Isaac.
Paul’s mother is the mysterious Lady Jessica played by Rebecca Ferguson, who is also a delight to look at.
Now, when I was watching this film, I didn’t know her name was Lady Jessica. I didn’t know Oscar Isaac’s character’s name. People get introduced and shit gets moving and you constantly feel like you’re somehow careening along at a snail’s pace and also that you’re kinda/sorta missing something.
All we know is that Paul is the heir.
And we know that House Atreides is a big deal, because they seem to have their own planet and huge banners and sigils like the Starks and they yell things like “Atreides!” from time to time.
Our pal Paul has to dress up for something ceremonial and he’s like “awwww” the way I used to when my parents were like “it’s Sunday, time for church.” But unlike Sundays of my childhood, something cool happens to Paul. As he’s standing at parade rest with his dad and mom and oh, say like twenty-five thousand or so of their uniformed troops, which had sort of a Roman legion kind of vibe, a spaceship that looks like a pregnant Porg lands and a bunch of weirdos in Deep Space Nine methane-environment suits walk up the red carpet toward them, led by a Handsome Dude in a dashiki-looking garment and a Mean Grandma.
Handsome Dude bows.
Oscar Isaac, who is even more handsome than handsome dude, nods. Like ‘sup.
Handsome Dude pulls out a scroll. A scroll! It’s like 10,000 years in the future and the dude has a papyrus scroll.
“You’re in charge of Arrakis, m’kay!”
“Oh yeah?” says Oscar Isaac.
“The emperor says so.”
“No shit? Okay well then, yeah I guess so,” agrees Oscar Isaac.
I’m paraphrasing here to keep it light. They are very serious. Everything in Dune is very serious.
“Atreides!” yells Josh Brolin, who is also in this movie as kind of a gruff military type. Sort of the Kurt Russell character from Stargate but not suicidal and with some more joie de vivre. But nothing gives him a hard on more than a good battle.
“Atreides!” yell all the legionaries.
And so that’s it. House Atreides is taking over Dune . Which I guess is called Arrakis.
That’s kind of a clusterfuck, apparently, because the planet of Arrakis used to be run by a bunch of Reaver-looking psychopaths in gimp suits called House Dave Bautista. Actually, the goon in charge of that house is played by Dave Bautista in Jack Skellington-white makeup and his house is called Harkonnen. Homie needs a spray tan like you read about.
I also forgot this during the film, even though it was referenced several times. They, too, have their own planet. I guess if you’re a noble “house” you get a planet.
House Atreides’s planet is pretty. Green. Rivers and sunsets. It’s nice.
Conversely, House Harkonnen’s planet is like if Ronan from Guardians of the Galaxy and Darth Plagueis made a baby. It’s a dark world ruled by a disgusting Al Capone character played by Stellan Skarsgård, who we come to find is the boss of Dave Bautista and I think also his uncle.
I don’t know what is and isn’t a spoiler in this movie because maybe all of this stuff is common knowledge to book readers, but some lines are drawn and sides are picked. I don’t think I’m giving any huge spoilers away after this point, but if you’re on the fence, this might be a good time to stop reading. Because from here the plot thickens for Paul himself because he has to meet with Mean Grandma and she almost kills him.
She barks at him in a voice like the Cave of Wonders from Aladdin, but meaner, and he has to do what she says. It’s like a Jedi mind trick, but you say it in a scary voice.
Paul passes her test and she leaves, doubting that he’s “the one” aloud to his mother.
“The one what?” he asks.
“Oh shit you heard that?”
“So, yeah, I’m part of a secret cabal who has been breeding certain bloodlines for like a thousand years…”
“Skip to the end.”
“You might be the one,” she shrugs.
Paul is as nonplussed about his life being the result of a lot of genetic gameplanning as I am about watching a story set 10,000 years in the future where the leads are still named “Paul” and “Jessica.”
Eventually, House Atreides leaves their country club planet to move to Tatooine, which sucks all the balls in the world. You couldn’t pay me enough to leave a world like Naboo for a world like Jakku, but it ain’t no thang for the plucky Tim Chalamet. He’s game right away, and I’m sure that it had nothing to do with him dreaming of Zendaya every night.
Sometimes she was kissing him. Other times she buries a knife in his breadbasket. Ahhhh. Young love. It’s so complicated.
That’s his thing. He has visions.
So, they arrive in Arrakis, where they’re supposed to harvest spice, a sand drug that allows stellar navigators to weave between the stars like Ricky Bobby. No spice? No Talladega Nights, and thus spice is the most important resource in the galaxy.
So it makes perfect sense that the unseen emperor fires the space ghouls from House Harkonnen who have perfected spice harvesting, and replaces them with Team Oscar Isaac who wouldn’t know sand if he fell out of a lifeguard’s chair.
But alas, in the world of the film, if the emperor asks, you do it. That’s it.
Wisely, rather than alienate the indigenous people of Arrakis the way Team Harkonnen did, Oscar Isaac sends Aquaman to a sand planet to make nice with the locals.
When Team Atreides arrives, Jason Momoa has made first contact with all the vigor of a young William T. Riker. The leader of the locals, the Fremen, (Free-men? Hmmm) is played by a blue-eyed Javier Bardem, who can still get it and get it and get it.
One look at the dark-skinned Fremen and their Bedouin attire and I would have run for the hills rather than try to adapt this film. You know what we don’t have enough of? White saviors! Whew! Let’s make sure to have an 87 lb. Timmy Chals save people led by Javier Bardem. That’s a good call and totally makes sense.
Still, when Paul arrives on Arrakis, the locals whisper that he’s the one. And who am I to say he isn’t? My teenage daughter watched him in Little Women and I’m pretty sure it took about 8 minutes of screen time for her to pledge her undying loyalty to him. He has the kind of effortless, lithe white hotness from whence boy bands and Plan B pills doth spring.
So, they get to the planet, reunite with Jason Momoa and start to harvest the drugs.
Of course, treachery ensues and a battle breaks out and, well, I won’t tell you who wins but it rhymes with Maive Got Eastah.
On the run from the forces of Stellan Skarsgård in a petroleum bath, Paul must learn to use the scary voice that his mom and Mean Grandma can use. He must ally with the Fremen and learn the ways of the sand. Oh and there’s worms. Giant worms that are as big as Lake Okeechobee and with the surly disposition of a rancher catchin’ kids in his corn field. They don’t cotton to trespassers.
We finally get to Zendaya with like nine minutes left in the film and she’s the most gorgeous thing imaginable. Film students studying beauty shots should take note of how Villeneuve frames Zendaya beauty shots in this film. There’s a lot of hotness in Dune , a disproportionate amount, somewhat balanced by the acrid disgustingness of whatever Stellan Skarsgård is, but blue-eyed Zendaya is the tippy top of Mount Hotness.
As I left the film, I got a text from a guy in my fantasy football league trying to get me to trade him some players.
“I was in Dune for the last few hours,” I texted back. “I’ll look in a minute.”
“Any good?” he asked.
I’ve been thinking about it since. Is it any good? Hell yes! It’s a masterpiece in some ways and kind of a plodding bore in others. It’s utterly unique and winning and the music is unreal and the production cost more than ten years of the GDP of El Salvador. Any good? Pfffff. It’s amazing!
And also, somehow, a little confusing and a little up its own ass and a little naive? And somehow also I kind of didn’t mind any of its shortcomings because I felt so thankful for a huge budget film that felt considered and thoughtful in a world dominated by the binary thinking and gauche capitalism of the MCU.
In some ways I want to yell about Dune from the treetops and in others I might concede that it was pretty hamfisted in certain ways. I generally know who I’m rooting for because the alternative is positively mustache-twisting, but is that a defense of a successful script? Is that the foundation for a huge franchise?
Yeah there’s cool dragonfly jets and lots of action. But the cynic in me scoffed when, instead of bombarding unshielded enemies from orbit, one army lands to engage in hand-to-hand melee fighting. It’s 10,000 years in the future and the concept of fired projectiles is virtually nonexistent. Yes, people have these personal shields that explain that away, but man, Sun Tzu would have a field day with the idea of a naked army in a literal field with swords and you land your troop transports to swashbuckle with them rather than just having a sandwich and napalming them from the exosphere.
Any good? I mean, yes. It’s certainly worth the price of admission and then some. It will carry you along with it and then just stop, which is a common complaint about it. The minute you finally feel like all the setup is finished and the real story can begin, Dune is over. Lights come up and middle-aged dorks shuffle toward the men’s room, eager to drain their bladders and then get their Letterboxd reviews up as fast as possible. For uberdorks, this is crack. This is their spice.
For everyone else? I don’t know. I suspect there’s so much eye candy in this movie that you’ll almost forgive it anything.
There are parts of Dune that may warrant ridicule and other parts that may merit awards. There wasn’t a bad performance anywhere, and I suspect that the majesty and scope of Dune will be enough to launch it into the stratosphere. But much like Paul, I’m not exactly sure where any of it is going. The worldbuilding alone is pretty damn compelling, even if the stakes are nebulous. I’ll let others wow you with comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia and Heart of Darkness. I’ll let more serious reviewers wade into the nuance about cultural appropriation and Frank Herbert’s original intent to shun the tenets of hero-centric mythology. I’ll just say that it’s an experience. It’s something I suggest you buy a ticket to. It’s two and a half hours that feels like double that and half that at the same time and the best way to understand what I mean by that is to see it on the big screen for yourself.