Dune – REVIEW

In the realm of big, blockbuster galactic epics, there are two reigning kings: Star Wars and Star Trek. Two properties so heavily engrained in the cultural zeitgeist that you may not even realize you’re referencing them in your everyday life. While the interstellar sci-fi genre has always been a niche subject for modern audiences, these two franchises have found a way into household name status, transcending the geeks and the normies in a way that appeals to both. But hiding in the shadows is another contender, one with the potential to capture the attention of the world with captivating storytelling, eye-catching visuals and grand world building.

In 1965, sci-fi novelist Frank Herbert unleashed what would go on to be the best-selling sci-fi novel of all time, Dune. The epic covers the interplanetary conflicts between rivaling empire factions, all competing for control over a desolate desert planet lined with “spice”, a drug that prolongs life, increases mental abilities, and makes space travel a possibility. It had “billion dollar franchise” written all over it, and in 1984 surrealist storyteller David Lynch (Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks) tried his hand at adapting the daunting novel to film. The results were…less than successful. Bombing at the box office due to what Lynch detailed as “studio meddling”, the film has since gained cult status despite still being divisive among the Dune fanbase due to its storytelling and deviation from the source material.

Because of its grand scale and dizzying lore, many believe Dune to be relatively unadaptable without the right creative minds and money behind it. It would not only take a masterful director to wrangle the story into a digestible, 2 and a half hour runtime, but an unabashed fan with a personal connection to source material. Enter Denis Villeneuve. Adapting the epic was a lifelong dream of the director’s, but even he realized it would take time and growth before he was ready to tackle such a monumental task. Even though he was approached for the project back in 2016, Villeneuve took his time with finishing films like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 before diving headfirst into his largest project yet. And now here we are, able to reap the fruits of one of the most interesting and creative directors working today.

Villeneuve’s Dune is nearly everything I was expecting. A grand, visually stunning piece of sci-fi that manages to stand out among the rest thanks to the director’s vision alongside his love for the property. As someone who has never read the book or seen the original theatrical adaptation, my expectations purely hinged on the presentation, and damn did it ever deliver. The setup is intriguing, the world is vast with possibility, and the acting all around is a knockout, but…there’s something missing. That spark that hits you on an emotional level, that enthralls you in the characters’ passions and desires. While I can’t deny that I was thoroughly engaged in the grand scheme of things, there’s unfortunately not much left to dig for once you get past the surface.

Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides (left), Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides (right)

We are introduced to Paul (Timothee Chalamet) the heir to the House of Atreides, the familial rulers of the planet Caladan. Gifted with a hidden power from birth thanks to his mother Jessica’s (Rebecca Ferguson) connections to an ancient religion known as Bene Gessereit, Paul struggles to accept the massive expectations laid before him. His father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is tasked by the emperor of their galactic federation to assume control over the “spice” production on the planet Arrakis. The former overseers of Arrakis, the House of Harkonnen, are secretly plotting with the emperor to stage a coup against Atreides as the family threatens to upend the emperor’s rule. As everything begins to unravel, Paul’s powers begin to develop as his dreams begin to predict the very bleak future that may play out unless he takes a stand.

And that’s only the stripped down version. There’s many more relationships and political drama to be found, so you may find it intimidating trying to keep up with all the space names and jargon. Luckily, the film remains incredibly focused on balancing the exposition dumps with allowing you to infer on details thanks to relationships and conversations. While these aforementioned dumps are obvious in their intentions, they’re scarcely spread throughout the film and presented in ways that feel natural and aren’t just a character directly speaking to the audience (although that is exactly how the movie starts). Its a daunting task, but Villeneuve makes it work for the most part while not letting it be the bulk of the film.

What is the bulk of the film is the basking in the glory that is the film’s visual effects. Despite an earth color palette of browns and grays, the film still finds a way to remaining visually appealing through its contrasting colors. Whether it be the uniforms of of the House of Atreides or the ghostly white skin of the Harkonnens, these little splashes of color help to keep the visuals from being too bland. The CGI for the landscapes, vehicles and a few gigantic sand worms are all stellar and inventive, with just enough familiarity to keep the designs from becoming too outlandish, but with distinct creative choices to keep the visuals unique to this world. I don’t think there’s a single computer in this film, and just that small detail is noticeable enough. Villeneuve stays true the novel’s original vision, making the world’s designs seem as if the Aztecs discovered space travel. Kingdoms are predominantly stone centric, while vehicles have an almost rustic, jagged together. Its not as sleek as Star Trek but not as grungy as Mad Max: Fury Road. The designs bring the uniqueness to the film when the story itself tends to stumble. Not one to let the visuals take all the glory, resident ace in the hole Hans Zimmer delivers an absolutely booming soundtrack, mixing heavy orchestral productions with sprinklings of synth and haunting choir chants. From a sensory standpoint, Dune ticks all the necessary boxes and is highly deserving of all the praise it has garnered in that avenue.

Eye candy only gets you so far, and Dune was saddled with the difficult task of avoiding its narrative becoming dwarfed under the grand spectacle of its visuals. While I believe the bones of a compelling tale are there, the heart and emotion that could propel the film to undeniable classic status is unfortunately not present. While the presentation may have the necessary nuance, the same can’t be said for the narrative, which tended to feel empty to me. So much work and effort seems to have been put in the external aspects of the film that the internal aspects, the ones that connect with and transform audiences, seems to have missed the space boat. Like I said before, I knew nothing of the novel before going in, so maybe this is an accurate representation of the source. If so, then maybe this is a truly faithful interpretation, but for a moviegoer like myself who gravitates towards films that are deeper than they appear, I can’t help but feel disappointed. The film takes interplanetary conflicts and presents them in the broadest, detached manner possible, dwarfed under the weight of its own magnitude. Our protagonist, Paul, is stricken with the massive burden of a future as a powerful messiah, a future forced upon him by his mother, and yet it barely has any play in the big picture. By the end, you don’t feel as if Paul has made significant leaps in his personal journey. His environment and responsibilities may have changed, but his character has not.

By the time the film reaches its conclusion, we’re left with a cliffhanger promising an even greater journey to come. We obviously knew this film was only going to be a small part of a bigger story, but it doesn’t exactly succeed at standing on its own without that prior knowledge. If a sequel wasn’t guaranteed (which it really wasn’t until this week), then we’d be left with an open-ended film that does little to flesh out its characters. It seems the film got too caught up in its own grandeur that it forgot to tell a complete story. This was always going to be a battle to accurately adapt the novel in a limited runtime, but other film franchises have been able to make it work. This is the same thing we harp on Marvel for with every passing movie; its a commercial for another movie in the pipeline.

Needless to say, the public’s most anticipated film of the year didn’t exactly blow my mind like it seemed to do for many people. Its truly a visual spectacle that changes the standard by focusing more on the socio-political aspects of the world rather than big action set pieces, and for that the film should be applauded. But at the end of the day, the story does little to implement the kind of longevity that will keep people talking about the movie for months and years to come (at least for me). With that being said, I’m still very excited for the next installment, with unyielding faith that Villeneuve will be able to deliver an honorable adaptation. It does seem like most of the excitement is on the horizon, and he has yet to let us down before. For now, I can appreciate the film for its accomplishments, even if there’s not much present that will really pull me back into watching it again.

Rating

(out of a possible 5 sandworms)

Arrakis Spice

Spice is the lifeblood of the Dune universe (Duniverse?). It makes space travel possible, opens your mind and grants you extraordinary visions. Honestly, huffing too much of anything is sure to give you visions, so lets take this priceless hallucinogen and shift it into pleasant cocktail form! For this cocktail I chose to use mezcal to give it a nice smokiness to it. If you’ve never had mezcal, it’s essentially a cousin of tequila. Both are made with agave, but tequila is particularly made with blue agave. You’ll find mezcal to have a slightly charred, earthy taste, relating to how it’s prepared. Paired alongside it is refreshing blood orange juice, a splash of elderflower liqueur for some added herbal essence and a healthy muddle of mint to give it a cooling aftertaste. Of course, the cocktail still needs its “spice” component. I’ve opted for a rim of Tajin to make the drink more approachable, adding a distinct flavor of chili and lime to every sip.

Please note, if you notice your eyes turning a bright blue, you may have drunk to much…

Ingredients

  • 2oz mezcal
  • 1/2oz elderflower liqueur
  • 1oz blood orange juice
  • 1/2oz lemon juice
  • 1/2oz simple syrup
  • 2-3 dashes angostura bitters
  • Mint (save a few leaves for garnish)
  • Rim: Tajin

Instructions

  1. In a shaker, muddle 5-6 mint leaves with the simple syrup.
  2. Add the rest of the ingredients to the shaker and shake with ice.
  3. Rim a rocks glass with a lemon wedge and coat it with tajin.
  4. Double strain cocktail into prepared glass over ice.
  5. Garnish with remaining mint leaves.

Video

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