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Dune is the Cinematic Blockbuster Experience we’ve been Waiting For

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Dune screening provided by Universal

Dune is truly epic in scale while keeping a tactile feeling that courses through the entire film, proving once again Villeneuve is on another level as a blockbuster filmmaker.”

There is a recent surge of sci-fi and fantasy literary classics being adapted onto the screen that, due to its width and scale, had to be made into television. Wheel of Time, Foundation, Game of Thrones, and Brave New World are all beloved books that have all become ambitious shows you can watch at home. Being able to dig into the weeds of a dense story is an aspect that makes television special and why creators adapt these works into a medium you can make 70+ hours of. It seems like the perfect place to store these stories, or at least it appears that way until you see Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) in a movie theatre.

There is an overwhelming visual splendour that can’t be overstated with a film like Dune. In an era of blockbuster cinema dominated by Marvel Studios, the visual flair that Villeneuve developed with the extraordinary Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and has deployed with precision here, is both refreshing and awe-inspiring.

Both visually and sonically, Dune is an overwhelming feat of filmmaking that should be celebrated. From its cinematographer, Melbourne’s own Greig Fraser, to production designer Patrice Vermette, everyone is on top of their game here.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Frank Herbert’s Dune, it is the urtext for a lot of sci-fi storytelling that follows in both film and literature, including The Matrix (1999) and Star Wars (1977), which centres on a hero’s journey of a messianic figure thrust into a war against an empire. The figure in question here is Paul Atreides (Chalamet), prince to House Atreides that has recently been given the keys to the desert planet Arrakis. The planet is inhospitable to its white colonisers but has the most important resource in the universe; Spice, which is a hallucinogenic substance that allows for intergalactic travel and is treated as a currency of sorts. House Atreides was given the planet by the Padishah Emperor, with its previous colonisers of 80 years, House Harkonnen —chief antagonists of the film— asked to vacate as part of a larger ploy.

The allusions to eco-colonisation and expansionism for resources (spice as crude oil parallel) allow this hard sci-fi story to be explained and understood easily for those not well versed in the genre. Villeneuve and co-writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts do well here to develop the world and the groundwork for a simple but compelling narrative that can be accessible enough to allow the film to make a dent in the Covid impacted box office.

Dune is truly epic in scale while keeping a tactile feeling that courses through the entire film, proving once again Villeneuve is on another level as a blockbuster filmmaker. The film felt surprisingly close in style to Sicario (2015), with a combination of quiet tension and brutalist sound design and architecture that he clearly favours.

While a lot of his movies have been visually beautiful in moments, Villeneuve is first and foremost a director that revels in tension and worldbuilding centred within a cacophony of concrete brutalism. We see this dating as far back as Enemy (2013), and can be traced through his filmography. What’s remarkable about Villeneuve is his ability to scale up his productions to absurd levels while never losing the scope of its entirety, and the meticulous atmosphere that is being constructed.

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Timothee Chalamet in Dune

But Dune is not just a spectacle blockbuster that can barely be viewed in the same context as other films. The acting is fantastic here, as to be expected for a big-budget film that can give Javier Bardem and Charlotte Rampling two scenes each, but in less capable hands the actors could’ve been overshadowed completely by the production and sound design. Chalamet’s performance as Paul, in particular, was better than expected, as he evolves slowly from the pompous and callow prince the story begins with in interesting and compelling ways. In a film full of enormous spectacle, Chalamet’s interiority intrigues throughout, even if it is fleeting. These are moments the second film will have to lean on to succeed.

Dune is not without its blemishes, however. The main issues of the film boil down to it clearly not being long enough to cover its scope, which in most cases is a complaint hidden inside a complement, but here it is a genuine issue. Dune has a plot super-cannon that shoots us through the film with reckless abandon which never allows the interiority of the characters to bubble to the surface. The sound design and Hans Zimmer’s score stack on top of this to make an overwhelming sensory experience, but also removes any opportunity to exhale as even moments of silence become weaponised.

It feels difficult to rate the quality of a film like Dune as it is clearly half of a story, with characters only beginning their journey and the larger picture still obscured to those not versed in the Herbert novels or David Lynch film. This is not a criticism you can levee against a similar scale film series like Lord of the Rings, with the first film Fellowship of the Ring (2001) feeling whole while also establishing the road ahead. Villeneuve has set his sights on making a series as complete as Peter Jackson’s masterpiece, an ambitious feat Dune falls short of, but the attempt is wildly admirable nonetheless.

Dune opens nationally from tomorrow, the 2nd of December 2021. 

Contributors

Darcy Read

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