Dune (2021)


(4 stars out of 5)

Dune (2021) Directed by Denis Villeneuve

A triumph in the transformation of a complex literary medium to the audiovisual medium, laudable as the definitive and apotheosic film adaptation of the dense science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert in 1965. After the laborious but unsuccessful attempts to transfer the particular prose style of the novel to the big screen, the hopes of seeing this major work of science fiction in the film medium were less and less probable; the tortuous disaster and obvious fiasco of the first adaptation in 1984 directed by David Lynch, confirmed in practice that the literary compatibility of Dune with the art of cinema was erroneous. Empirically, any producer already knew in advance what a daunting job it was to initiate a film project bearing the name of Dune. And yet, against all odds, today in the 21st century we can finally say that we have a competent and substantial Dune film. A project that definitely shouldn’t work, even more so based on the flawed attempts of the past, but apparently, this new production contradicts the facts and revalidates the adaptation of the novel to the big screen with exceptional talent and verve.

The audacity and vehemence of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is just one of the many reasons that can illustratively explain how fruitful the ideas proposed to carry out the monstrous complexity of Dune turned out to be. For I truly believe that this production has had the meticulous task of not only structuring its effective ideas with very successful commercial inclinations, but has also had the necessary commitment to treat the literary work with extreme diligence to the extent of respecting its novelistic nature, without sacrificing the cinematic lushness, of course.

What this sterling production does is never lose the extraordinary sense of spectacle, of grandeur and grandiloquent entertainment, but even better, it uses those tools inherent in blockbuster cinema adjusted to more artistic standards, more epic in beauty. In this rock-solid film, the themes that make the novel so rich flow with enviable uniformity, and the assured, potent confidence that filmmaker Denis Villeneuve demonstrates to perennially strike a balance between them is what makes this adaptation an unprecedented smash hit. The narrative core maintains in its design a cohesive portrayal of all that makes this galactic story significant; the greatest interest that has consistently emerged from the sci-fi world created by Herbert, is the symbolic formation of its themes, and how these react allegorically to our society, be it contemporary or from the past. Personally, what mesmerizes me most about this intricate fictional story is its political verbiage, which is sharply pronounced in its storytelling mechanisms. Essentially, this film makes a meritorious display of those figurative qualities that lie at the heart of the storytelling with a symmetry of literary and cinematic tenets functioning productively together.

To understand the philosophy of messianism is practically to to grasp very thoroughly the architecture of the narrative. Fundamentally, Dune has in its idiosyncrasies many properties that are not so ”idiosyncratic” to say the least, to begin with, the cliché configuration of having as main character a young savior, an idealist persuaded to save the world is nothing new to the medium. However, the execution makes us see these conventionalities with a meaningful socio-political value, it is not mere banality to exalt entertainment, here it is given intriguing functions, so luxurious that they invite you to delve into them.

In 10191, Duke Leto of House Atreides played with austerity by Oscar Isaac, ruler of the ocean planet Caladan, is assigned by Emperor Padishah Shaddam Corrino IV to replace House Harkonnen as ruler of the fiefdom of Arrakis. Arrakis is an inhospitable desert planet and the only source of “spice,” a valuable substance that extends human vitality and is essential for interstellar travel. In reality, Shaddam intends for House Harkonnen to stage a coup to reclaim the planet with the help of the Emperor’s Sardaukar troops, eradicating House Atreides, whose influence threatens Shaddam’s control. Leto is concerned, but sees the possibility of allying with the native population of Arrakis, the Fremen, as the first step in increasing the position of the Atreides in the Landsraad, the political body representing all the noble houses.

Paul Atreides, played with revealing acting proficiency by Timothée Chalamet, has his destiny, beyond fear, awaiting him. The son of a grand duke Leto and royal heir to the noble House Atreides, he has spent his entire life preparing to carry the heavy mantle that accompanies his family name, training with teachers and mentors to hone his combat skills and intellect. Now, on the verge of adulthood, he is haunted by visions of a mysterious young woman and an inevitable future, which also call him to leave his childhood home in Caladan for a new life. Once he arrives on Arrakis, the most dangerous planet in the Known Universe, Paul will face his innermost fears to fulfill his true destiny.

Just writing that brief synopsis makes me dizzy with how convoluted it is. Evidently, it is a lengthy and far-reaching opus, quite overwhelming just to think that it must be compacted into the film medium. Why is it worth saying that my modest way of summarizing the plot is perhaps too abbreviated? (i.e. I have left a lot of plot out so as not to obstruct the dynamics of this writing). Well, in short, the vast, expansive scope of Dune’s richness has so many thematic roots that the simple act of drawing up a synopsis becomes almost inconceivable. And it is not that the narrative is holistically sustained only by the messianic themes surrounding the main character, from those, all the others are derived. Dune is composed as a space ode that, however far from our world and rationality, is very much assimilated to the characteristics of our human world. The stentorian plot expresses an ecological and cultural message in considerable dimensions, primarily because of the direct emphasis on the relations of a society dependent on the environment, and how the indispensable resources of this affect the policies that arise in a kind of intergalactic war. Consequently, religion, economics and politics, has a decisive weight in the dramatic proceedings of Dune, this is what vastly differs from other popular blockbusters, or science fiction franchises, in Dune the overexposure of substantial issues have very revealing and philosophical objectives. That itself makes it special.

Nevertheless, not everything is marvelous in this film adaptation, there are flaws and plenty of them; they are not imperfections that affect the punch of its epic pageantry per se, yet they are glaring flaws that preclude it from reaching the pinnacle of perfection. The narrative structure is portentous, sometimes erring on the side of flashiness, and clearly a film that feels like a massive anticipation, it lacks the tidiness of a film with an opening and closing composition, and that’s something that creates tremendous languor in a protracted first act that has difficulty establishing the plot and rules of the novel. The decision to release the film episodically is undoubtedly a beneficial strategy and filmically gives this production the opportunity to treat the story with all its details and complexities in a better format. Yet, that decision may also work against them; this film has set the standards so high that the very thought of a sequel makes me skeptical as to whether it will reach the same levels. We will soon find out…


Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.