Dune really isn’t as bad as many of the reviews have indicated. It has its strengths, and definitely has its weaknesses. And then, it has a tone that will either put you off or turn you on. Note: I’m not a fanboy, about Dune or Star Wars or Star Trek—not even The Lord of the Rings. I haven’t read the books associated with these films, and I never saw the 1984 version of Dune. So I’m pretty much of a blank slate, and I come to the film simply as a film.
Since the story doesn’t really grab me as much as it would a fan, and because the movie tends to shy away from strong narrative and big dramatic moments, I was forced to pay attention to other things—the look, the sound, the performances—to get my impressions and enjoyment. There was plenty to admire, perhaps less to enjoy. But first, there were two small weaknesses that affected things overall.
One is that while it was always marketed as Dune, the film opens by calling itself Dune: Part 1. This is something of a bait-and-switch. Of course it makes sense to wait until after opening weekend to finally determine to proceed with Dune: Part Two (coming 2023). But thinking you’re going to get the whole story when you only get half can lead to disappointment, an experience no film wants to bring to itself.
The second weakness is rather humorous and only slightly distracting. It’s simply that Jason Mamoa is in a completely different movie than the rest of the actors. His name, Duncan Idaho, already sets him apart, but his entire performance is on another plane entirely. First of all, he is presented almost as a Chris Pratt-like hero, with funny lines that make one think we are in the Marvel universe (think Iron Man and Thor). Then those lines quickly disappear, and there isn’t an ounce of humor in the rest of the film. But Idaho stays around as a character for quite a while, and like Bill Murray in most of the films he is in, he exists and acts in a parallel universe. The intense urgent whisper that characterizes the others is never a part of Mamoa’s performance. The moody, rather dour feel of the film doesn’t reach Mamoas’s character or performance, and he is almost more of a Guardians of the Galaxy character than one who fits in with the dark and somber atmosphere.
But aside from that, even if you’re not intrigued by the world or events of Dune, there is much to admire. As usual with director Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), the visuals are stunning. There isn’t much of a chance to get a strong sense of place, as the action keeps moving from location to location. But otherworldliness certainly characterizes every location we see, and if things aren’t always beautiful, they are generally striking.
Then there is the film’s soundscape. Composer Hans Zimmer (Dunkirk, Interstellar, Inception—do we see a pattern?—Gladiator, The Lion King) helps turn Dune into something of a Christopher Nolan film with a strong, ever-moving atonal score. No soaring orchestral melodies here. It’s lush, to be sure, but also loud and immersive at times. As with his Nolan films, the music here is not an add-on, but is part of the visual/aural experience.
Then there are the performances. I’m an Oscar Isaac fan, and (spoiler alert) he leaves much too soon. Then there is Rebecca Ferguson (several Mission: Impossible films, including two upcoming ones, as well as The Greatest Showman and Men in Black: International), who has the role of her career so far as the partner of Oscar Isaac’s character and the mother of the lead. There’s a great deal of action to the part, but the emphasis is on her strength and protective love for her son. As dramatic as things get, she beautifully underplays the role, which only adds to its power.
Then there is future Oscar winner Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name, Little Women, Lady Bird) as Paul. Chalamet is almost a genre unto himself at this point. There is no other young American actor of his unusual talent and presence, and the film is lucky to have him, even if Villeneuve seems to clamp down on any possible scenery-chewing, and keeps him (and Ferguson) speaking so low that it’s often hard to hear what they are saying. But holding a film of this magnitude on his slender shoulders is something of a triumph for a young actor. He has an almost ethereal (and yes, otherworldly) beauty that is combined with an easy and naturalistic acting style—quite the combination. We always discussed what makes a “star” in my film classes, and we’ve all agreed it goes beyond talent or even the love of the camera. Chalamet is not traditionally handsome, he has a rather angular face, and he is as thin as they come. Yes, he is very talented as an actor, but so are many others. Whatever the “it” factor of a star is, Chalamet has it in spades, and the film would be considerably weaker without him.
Zendaya, a kind of female equivalent to Chalamet in terms of looks, waif-like qualities, and delicate elegance, is more of a presence than a character. I assume she will have a greater role in the second film. Stellan Skarsgård seems misused in the film’s version of Jabba the Hut, and I can only hope the paycheck was worth it. Josh Brolin continues his tough-guy role here and does what we expect him to do—be strong, smart, and brave.
If you’ve been put off by negative reviews, don’t stay away. The book and its concepts have created a cottage industry of loyalty and criticism in equal measure. The film, while generally bleak, has its own life and strengths that make a viewing worthwhile. Go for the sake of the legend; stay for the visuals, the sounds, and the performances.