It’s no secret that I’ve been somewhat skeptical about Dune. For well over a year, I’ve expressed a bit of trepidation that this ambitious undertaking would be doomed to fail. For one thing, Dune has foiled many before. The source material may well be impossible to successfully adapt, at least without an epic length. So, seeing it meant to be a two part story also led to concern that we’d just be getting half a film. Well, we did get half of a film, but it’s a compelling science fiction blockbuster that sets the stage for something big to come. Here at the Toronto International Film Festival, this is a movie that sucks you in. Now, my enthusiasm for the flick will dissipate if we don’t get the back half, but for now, I’m in.
Dune is a spectacle, through and through. Bold, serious, and dedicated to launching a whole new franchise, it’s a gamble that’s paid off. While it’s no masterpiece of re-invention of science fiction, it manages to show that the right amount of care can make something unwieldy like this work. So easily could this have crashed and burned, it not being a disaster already was a success. That it’s a very good film, through and through, is almost a miracle.
The most ambitious adaptation yet of Frank Herbert‘s legendary science fiction novel, this is the story of the fight for the planet Arrakis, told via the tale of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). Containing the sought after “spice” that is constantly being mined, the Emperor has removed the cruel House Harkonnen and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). Instead, House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) will be handling that duty. Leto knows this seems too good to be true, but plans to create an alliance with the Fremans, who live on Arrakis. As he sends Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) ahead to scout out the planet, Paul asks to join. He doesn’t have an interest in ruling, but wants to make a difference. He’ll soon get his chance.
With plans in motion from Harkonnen to destroy Atreides, Paul also learns about the special powers his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) has bestowed inside him through her membership in the witch-like Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. Seen as potentially the Chosen One, he will play a big part in the fate of Arrakis. For Paul, he also has been seeing visions of the future, including one that features a Freman (Zendaya) prominently. Settle in, as this world is just starting to be built.
A star-studded cast takes this material as seriously as needed for this sort of sci-fi. Timothée Chalamet has the most substantial role, while Jason Momoa is clearly having the most fun. Along with Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac, they have the most to do. That being said, the acting isn’t quite the focus here, solid as they all are. Stellan Skarsgård is effectively monstrous in a role likely to expand next time, while Zendaya is almost a cameo. The rest of the cast includes Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin, David Dastmalchian, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Charlotte Rampling, and more.
Denis Villeneuve was passionate about this and it shows. Not just directing but co-writing with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, Villeneuve wants to capture your imagination at all turns. Having composer Hans Zimmer working overtime to immerse you in the sounds of Dune doesn’t hurt, nor does the awe-inspiring visuals from cinematographer Greig Fraser. Villeneuve the director is really knocking it out of the park here. However, Villeneuve the filmmaker on the whole is not without fault here. The pacing does drag at times, while the screenplay by Roth, Spaihts, and Villeneuve does feel self-serious at times. They don’t shy away from the influences of the genre that originated here, though they also don’t add much new to it.
Below the line, Dune is going to be a massive force at the Oscars. Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Original Score, and Best Visual Effects nominations are all on the table. Villeneuve has a shot to score a Best Director nod if this is a hint, of course which means a Best Picture nom isn’t out of the question. The latter seems like an uphill battle, but if it proves popular, anything is possible.
Dune works, somewhat to my surprise, as mentioned above. Now, it again bears mentioning that it only works if the second installment does get made. For now, I’ll set that aside and say that those looking for large scale sci-fi are in for a treat. It’s the sort of ambitious genre effort that we see all too rarely these days. While it will be available on HBO Max, I saw it here in TIFF and I can’t stress the immersive nature of that experience enough. Have patience, but give in to Dune.