Dreams are messages from the deep.
This is the first line we see and hear in this film. Before even the company logos come up, we have a black screen while an inhuman, unintelligible voice makes sounds with the subtitles “dreams are messages from the deep” are transcribed onto the black screen. I’m going to paraphrase here and it’s entirely possible I’m misremembering certain bits of this story, but just hang with me. Years ago, Eric Heisserer, the writer of Arrival, talked about the moment he knew Denis Villeneuve was the right director for the film. In a discussion for the look of the spaceships in a production meeting, Villeneuve said he didn’t know what they looked like yet because he hadn’t dreamt about them yet. It’s a great encapsulation of Villeneuve as a filmmaker and his process, and especially so here in Dune. You can feel in nearly every frame that Villeneuve has dreamt of this film for a very long time.
I’ve loved Villeneuve since 2013’s Prisoners, which still stands as one of my all time favorite films. We are blessed that he was the one to adapt Frank Herbert’s seminal novel for this attempt. Dune follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a young man who is the heir to House Atreides, one of the most noble and powerful houses in the galaxy. They are asked by the emperor to be stewards of the planet Arrakis, an arid desert world that produces an element called “spice” that allows safe interstellar navigation, making it the most valuable element in the galaxy. But the gift is not a gift, as House Harkonnen, the previous stewards of Arrakis, ready a legal war against House Atreides, as they have been set up by the emperor to fail. That doesn’t even cover any of what this film is about.
One of the great hurdles in adapting Herbert’s novel is that it’s very hard to explain. There’s a whole lot of universe-building you have to understand before even getting into the story of Paul Atreides. Villeneuve does as good a job as you could hope telling the audience what the rules and stakes of this universe are. He has a cast good enough to communicate emotionally what the stakes and laws of this universe are. Even when the dialogue doesn’t make sense, you still understand what they’re saying on an emotional level, and that’s more important.
This is not a knock on Timothée Chalamet, as he is quite good here, but he is also almost always outmatched in nearly every scene of this film. Again, not a knock on him, I’ve always liked him, this is me just stressing how absolutely stacked this cast is. Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, Zendaya, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Josh Brolin, the list goes on and on. The only knock on this cast is that some of them have to wait for part two in order to really get into their character (hold that thought). Honestly, my favorite performance was Jason Momoa’s. You’re just smiling whenever he’s on screen. All the charisma of his is on full display as Duncan Idaho, and he’s doing the action and stunts himself – he’s just a bad-ass here. I would happily watch a Duncan Idaho spinoff.
Greig Fraser’s philosophy of cinematography is to take the natural light and build off of it and shape it, rather than using LEDs to create a heightened sort of naturalism to his images. It works wonders here. There’s an otherworldly, yet lived-in quality to his lighting that makes the whole thing feel authentic, even when they are shooting in soundstages and not on location. He and Villeneuve conjure some images that could previously only have existed in dreams. The amount of this film that is shot on location and shot using practical effects is astounding. The fact that the budget was only $150 million is ridiculous. I know that’s an obscene amount of money, but the quality of the film makes you think it cost at least twice that to pull this off. Leave it to Villeneuve to make something as wondrous as this on a budget like that.Hans Zimmer’s score can be a bit over the top at points, but it’s strong work regardless. Every detail of the production design is staggering and enthralling. The look of everything – the spaceships, the uniforms, the weaponry, the worms! – is just captivating. I should also note that for a near 3 hour runtime, this film absolutely flies. There is no wasted time here, every bit of it feels essential and it somehow doesn’t drag at all. Again, leave it to Villeneuve to pull this off.
The only thing it really suffers from is that it is definitely only one half of a story. It’s great, but it’s just one half. Certain performances don’t really get their due because they have to wait for the second film. There’s not enough resolution to feel as satisfied as you’d want, as great as it is. If it seems I am nitpicking this film, it’s only because I see how inches-away close it was to becoming a once in a generation kind of film like Blade Runner 2049 was. Believe me when I say this is everything I could have hoped for, and Villeneuve creates an adaptation that Herbert’s novel has always been waiting for. It demands to be seen on the largest cinematic format possible. It’s just one half of a story though.
I’m really excited to see what dreams Villeneuve has for part two.
Dreams are messages from the deep.
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