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'Dune' Review: Denis Villeneuve's astounding modern masterpiece

'Dune' - Denis Villeneuve

At first, I was a little apprehensive when on the way to watch Denis Villeneuve‘s new and highly talked about film, Dune. My brain was wracked with questions of how – and if – the Canadian auteur would be able to illustrate the complex socio-political and environmental allegory of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. Furthermore, the main apprehension was undoubtedly surrounding the question of whether Villeneuve would forgo many of the plot’s critical elements in favour of his superb aesthetic vision. 

After the first 10 minutes, however, all anxieties had been readily dispelled. At the film’s inception, there’s a scene featuring Timothée Chalamet, who plays the film’s protagonist Paul Atreides, the heir to the House of Atreides, looking somewhat angsty with his stygian fringe combed across his face. Here, he discusses why he doesn’t want to be the heir to his father’s fiefdom. The natural instinct was to think ‘here we go again’, fearing a repeat of the actor’s of his lacklustre performance in 2019’s The King

Never before have O been so happy to have been proven wrong. In this particular scene, Atreides is discussing his thoughts and the state of the complex intergalactic politics with his father and the head of House Atreides, Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto. The onscreen chemistry between the two is fantastic, and without ruining the story, as the plot thickens, it becomes even more evident. Over the course of the story, as Paul Atreides’ circumstances change, Chalamet grows into the role, augmenting the fact that for Paul, his life is an ever-changing set of events that are widely out of his control.

In fact, the performances of each cast member is nothing short of incredible. Regardless of the natural beauty of the cast, something that seems unattainable to us mere mortals – which further confirms Villeneuve as a true aesthete – the acting is brilliant. Largely subtle, aside from a few iffy lines here and there, everyone from Rebecca Ferguson to Charlotte Rampling and even Dave Bautista shines. 

The script is marvellous, and between Villeneuve, John Spaihts and veteran screenwriter Eric Roth, the trio managed to streamline Herbert’s plot into a wickedly dark and alluring script that, after the film’s two-and-a-half-hour duration, leaves you wanting more. Not often can you say after such an extended sitting that your thirst was not entirely satisfied. This, however, is a testament to the truly dazzling writing. 

A travel guide to the filming locations used in Denis Villeneuve movie ‘Dune’

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Miraculously, Dune managed to succeed in keeping the novel’s dark intrigue whilst also conveying Herbert’s complex themes regarding socio-political matters, the environment, and the general human condition. There’s something about the plot that really speaks to the modern condition of always looking for a nefarious undercurrent in politics.

The one criticism I’d say about the script is that at points, it can be confusing as to who’s who, particularly considering that some characters or subjects have interchangeable names. However, this is not a major critique as this shows that the film is faithful to the book, and if anything, it says more about the Gordian tales of Herbert’s book rather than the script itself. Furthermore, the writing was not sidelined in favour of the aesthetic. Villeneuve succeeded in bringing Herbert’s vivid and elaborate worlds to life, and in every facet, he expertly injected his haute couture twist whilst still remaining faithful to the original. There are even some faint nods to David Lynch‘s original in what is a subtle but fantastic nuance.

The CGI also needs some serious mention. Never before have I been so blown away by visual FX. We all know deep down that we still wish for Jodorowsky’s version of Dune to come to fruition, but after seeing Villeneuve’s take, you might be able to finally put that dream to bed. Not since James Cameron’s Avatar has CGI made such an impact. The advanced technology of Herbert’s novels was brought to life, as was everything from the misunderstood serenity of the desert to the dark and ominous halls of the Harkonnen. It’s a rare accomplishment to create cinema that astounds and cultivates a sense of dread in the same breath.

Filmed across locations in Jordan, Hungary, Norway and the UAE, if you were to now go back and read the books, the image in your mind’s eye would be that of Villeneuve’s. A lot of this can be put down to Greig Fraser’s powerful cinematography, which has proven to be the somewhat predictable key factor in bringing Herbert’s creation to life. His management of the powerful juxtaposition between light and dark and his use of chiaroscuro was critical.

Then, we have the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. Reuniting with Villeneuve after the controversial 2017 outing Blade Runner 2049, there was no one else whose character fitted the film’s soundtrack composer better. Majestic and foreboding, Zimmer brought some of his classic understanding of film’s complex nature to the fore via his music. The soundtrack is perhaps the haziest and magical that Zimmer has ever produced, no doubt owing to the narcotic spirit of the planet Arrakis. The element I would argue that lets the soundtrack down is his incessant use of the bagpipes as a motif for House Atreides. While it works in some scenes, particularly whilst the family are on their home planet, when it is used in the desert battle scenes, it quickly turns into a very jarring choice of instrumentation. I get it, but maybe he could have toned it down.

All in all, it’s a surprisingly excellent film. So many times before, we’ve seen movies that have the ingredients to be incredible but fall flat owing to one aspect of the production superseding the others. Here, Villeneuve gets the balance almost perfect. I know that a sequel is yet to be confirmed, but given just how triumphant this effort has proven to be – and unfinished the story now is – it would be silly of Legendary Pictures not to give it the green light.

A pleasure for the senses and containing specks of an intergalactic Game of Thrones, Dune has the potential to be what Lord of the Rings was for the last generation and what Star Wars was for the generation before it. Modern but timeless, we’ll be hotly waiting for an update on a sequel.

We advise you to see it in IMAX to get the full experience.