Dune review (Venice 2021) — Denis Villeneuve’s gasp-inducing sci-fi spectacle lives up to expectations

It’s here, it’s beautiful, and it’s so bassy it makes you vibrate in your seat: Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of Dune has finally premiered on the sunny shores of the Lido at the Venice Film Festival, treating audiences to an astronomically impressive film that favours characterisation over bombastic action.

The epic—billed in its opening credits as Dune: Part One—isn’t just a contender for one of the most stunning science fiction movies of all time but perfectly strikes the balance of leaving you positively parched for Part Two while never feeling like half a film. With the best Hans Zimmer score of the past decade and endless crisp tableaus of jaw-dropping cinematography, Denis Villeneuve has delivered and then some of his mission to give Frank Herbert’s pioneering novel due diligence on the big screen.

“Dreams are messages from the deep,” reads the opening message of Dune, setting the tantalizing scene for the following 155 minutes of sheer cinematic prowess. If you’re not overly familiar with the source novel of the same name, Villeneuve has you in safe hands—easily sketching the characters, locations, and backstories for any Arrakis newbies without an annoying sense of spoon-feeding for any diehard Duneheads. The year is 10191, and House Atreides—comprising of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and their son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), are readying themselves to leave their home planet of Caladan. Flanked by their Master of Assassins (Stephen McKinley Henderson), weapons master (Josh Brolin), swordmaster (Jason Momoa), and doctor (Chang Chen), they are set to take control of Arrakis, a desert planet home to ‘spice’. This sacred hallucinogen not only enhances mental capabilities but is hinted to have potential uses for interplanetary space travel.

Despite Duke Leto’s early assertion that there is “no call, we do not answer, no faith we do not betray,” House Atreides is rightfully nervous about the move. Arrakis is populated by millions of Fremen, the planet’s native inhabitants who are mistrustful of those who continue to colonise their home in order to harvest spice. Fremen members include Chani (Zendaya), a mysterious young woman who continues to appear in Paul’s dreams, and Stilgar (Javier Bardem), the leader of one Fremen group on Dune.

What’s more, Arrakis’ previous rulers—House Harkonnen—aren’t too pleased about being usurped from their role of power and are already ancient enemies of House Atreides. The blancmange-like Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) and his henchmen Glossu (Dave Bautista), and Piter (David Dastmalchian) scheme to ensure House Atreides are doomed to fail, partnering with an Emperor who is threatened by the growing power and prestige of the family.

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Running alongside these more political struggles for power is a more spiritual search for The One, or ‘Kwisatz Haderach’: someone who can access memories, see the future and exercise superhuman cognitive powers. A mysterious female group known as Bene Gesserit, headed by Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), have been cross-breeding different houses in order to try and locate The One. And if that wasn’t enough, the entire planet of Arrakis is in oscillating fear and awe of giant, subterranean sandworms that threaten to consume everything in sight every time they hear a thudding footstep.

In undoubtedly his best performance since Call Me By Your Name, Timothée Chalamet shines as the central Homeric hero born with an albatross around his neck. He plays Paul Atreides with an athletic angst that stands strong in the film’s airtight ensemble, easily rising to the task of such a demanding, enigmatic role. As well as his trademark vulnerability, all furrowed brow and Byronic curls, Chalamet is forthright and fierce when needed: a believable fledgling leader that exudes his House’s trademark loyalty.

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Another highlight is Rebecca Ferguson, who serves as the film’s emotional core—not as a hackneyed weepy woman trying to protect her family, but a mysterious and spiritual figure who sees horror, fear and destiny in a way that others do not. Grande Dame of cinema Charlotte Rampling draws upon her long history of ‘cold fish’ roles to frighten everyone unlucky enough to cross her steely-eyed path.

As the brusque weapons master to House Atreides, it’s a shame that Josh Brolin fades into the background; an early training scene with Paul feels merely expository to prove that the young boy can indeed fight when provoked, and the character has little significance beyond that in Part One. However, Jason Momoa proves for the umpteenth time his status as one of the most charismatic men in Hollywood, bringing a recognisable gentle-giant-that-bares-its-teeth energy to the screen. Only really making an appearance over two hours in, we’ll have to wait until Part Two to truly see how Zendaya chews the scene as the blue-eyed Chani and how Javier Bardem’s character will develop beyond an initial blank gruffness.

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Put simply, Dune is a visual feast—nay, banquet—that takes us from stunning locale to stunning locale before you even have time to drink in the exquisite composition. Villeneuve does an excellent job with world-building, making each location fleshed out and unique. Whether it’s the dusty climes of Arrakis with the air alive with specks of glinting gold or the windswept shores of the oceanic Caladan, the feeling is painterly, Turner-esque and truly breathtaking.

Cinematographer Greig Fraser makes us choke on the dust and sand that fills the planet while never resorting to dull or muddy opacity. Thankfully, Dune avoids the ugly green-screen trappings of many modern films that rely heavily on CGI: it truly feels not like a two-dimensional dystopia but a frightening and possible version of the future, which is exactly what this world is meant to be.

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Filming also took place on location in Jordan and Abu Dhabi, adding real texture that technology often tries and fails to emulate. In particular, one scene that comes around the middle—where we witness spice harvesting interrupted by our first glimpse at a sandworm—is simply breathtaking. Costume designer Jacqueline Goya studied the ochre-toned paintings of Francisco Goya for inspiration in the characters’ clothing, balancing textural history with functional futurism. From the Reverend Mother’s Kamilavka-style headpiece to Lady Jessica’s gold-encrusted veil, each piece hides details about the characters.

Evoking the eerie, pulsating rhythms that send sandworms into a frenzy, Hans Zimmer’s score is spasmodic, cinema-shaking, eardrum-bursting stuff. The chanting and wailing of female voices reflects the power that Lady Jessica and the rest of the Besse Gesserit have on the direction of the drama, as well as the feminine presence haunting Paul’s dreams.

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While Dune looks incredible, an area that perhaps suffers is the screenplay. Co-adapted for the screen by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Forrest Gump writer Eric Roth, there’s a real absence of literary flair considering the source prose. This is undoubtedly a choice to make the dialogue as natural as possible, but with such visual pomp and ceremony, more talky scenes often feel a little flat. Many characters deliver their lines in irritating, whispery vocal fry, often deployed by actors in an attempt to evoke a sense of hushed dramatism.

Any poetic phrasing one might hope to see translated from the book seems to be gone, and what dialogue is written doesn’t seem to be utilized to its best effect. With a 400-page novel, you can take time to introduce your dystopia’s concepts and language, but with this film, sometimes the real significance of certain objects and concepts struggle to stick in the memory. A second watch might be needed in order to tell your Gom Jabbars from your Chakobsa.

Dune is sure to satiate the scepticism of Herbert purists and win over fresh audiences alike. It’s not quite an emotional sucker-punch, but it’s cinema: loud, gorgeous and sorely missed. Denis Villeneuve has described this film as “an appetiser for the second part still to come, which is the main meal.” If that’s the case, then we’re all in for an absolute treat.

This screening was part of the Venice International Film Festival – you can find out more about the event here.

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Dune (2021) review

Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of Dune is contender a for one of the most beautiful science fiction movies of all time that's only let down by a screenplay that lacks any real flair.

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