Dune can be somewhat confusing to follow, but is entirely worth seeing owing to it being an enthralling cinematic experience. There are quite a lot of things setup in this film, but if the inevitable second film is as well-made as this is, then the Dune film series has the potential to be an instant classic. If you have the opportunity, see it in cinemas in order to do it full justice.
The complexity of the film’s story can’t be overstated. A significant portion of the first hour is dedicated to introducing the concepts and ideas needed to build a multi-film series, so try not to miss anything. I can’t accurately state how confusing the film really is, because I’d read the original novel a few years prior, and therefore went in knowing a basic outline of the plot, and most of the characters and organisations portrayed. It’s an unfortunate casualty of what’s lost in adapting a book (especially one as dense as Frank Herbert’s Dune) to screen – much exposition and character motivation falls by the wayside once you lose the ability to witness a character’s point of view, and their internal monologue. A good litmus test of how well you’re able to follow the plot of Dune would be remembering your experience in watching Game of Thrones, if you indeed did. If you weren’t confused watching that, and if you pay attention to the film, you’ll be fine – so don’t let it be a turn off. Once you’ve taken all of this in, however, Dune totally ramps up the spectacle, leaving you enthralled for the remainder of the runtime.
As for the story’s content, at its most basic level, it’s a science fiction epic about the politics of an empire spanning the known universe. We follow the struggle for survival of a noble house as they deal with the threats posed by the greed and envy of others, interwoven with the plots, hopes, and motivations of other groups and organisations. Crucial to the plot is the substance, Spice, that allows interstellar travel, allows users to mutate themselves physically and mentally, and has psychoactive, hallucinogenic properties that awaken prophetic visions in certain people. The substance, the most valuable in the universe, provides much motivation for the expansive cast of characters, hoping to possess the great power from controlling its sale and production. The film is fairly obvious at first in its portrayal of the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’, and doesn’t fully succeed in elevating the antagonists above mere caricatures. The interest lies in discerning the ambitions and plots of those that don’t fit into these simple labels, like the shadowy sisterhood of psychic warrior priests, or the native peoples of the planet Arrakis, the only known location for the production of Spice. As mentioned previously, there is a great deal of setup for a future franchise in this film, and based on how this film only covers the first half of Frank Herbert’s first book in the larger Dune franchise, it’s plain to see that there’ll be a lot more of interest to offer in the upcoming second film, where we’ll witness the culmination of most of the arcs and questions raised here. Whether this film suffers from this setup is up to you – I for one believe there’s more than enough spectacular payoff in the last two acts to make up for obvious franchise building.
Special praise has to go to director Denis Villeneuve and the others responsible for this film’s production design. The film squeezes out every last cent of its $165 million budget, and it all shows on screen. Everything from the sets, costumes, environments, effects, music, and choreography could be held up as the greatest we’ve seen in years. The only potential peer in recent memory is possibly The Lord of the Rings trilogy – with easy comparisons to make in the apparent care taken to make this movie, from every level, top to bottom. Much like Lord of the Rings, I’m excited to learn more about the behind the scenes production of Dune, simply because the end product implies so much effort and care went into it.
As for the performances of the cast, there’s not a lot to say. Nobody phones it in, but neither does anybody give award-worthy acting. I’m of the opinion that any fault lies with the material – the characters of Dune bear a great deal of responsibility, most have some degree of physical and mental training to conceal their emotions – as well as thst the content of the story, and what the characters go through, is somewhat divorced from regular human experience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it naturally makes it harder for the actors to portray their characters in a way we’d traditionally laud as exceptional performances. Moments of raw emotion are few and far between, but when the facade cracks, the actors do put their all into it. Special mention goes to Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson, who make for eminently rootable protagonists, and who excel in their little moments where their characters allow themselves to express themselves. Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin portray military-minded, duty-bound, but ultimately loving mentors, contrasted against the energetic and capable Jason Momoa, playing the other end of the spectrum in an odd trinity of father figures for our main character. Stellan Skarsgård and Dave Bautista play antagonists who are under no misgivings about their presence as antagonists, with Skarsgård portraying the cold, ruthless aspect of evil, while Bautista represents the passionate, reckless brutality of it. As for sleeper hits, Babs Olusanmokun appears as an eleventh-hour antagonist in a surprisingly emotional manner, presenting fury and outrage, and livening up the end of the film, providing the emotional climax of our main character’s journey.
To conclude, I think Dune is almost a must-see film, with the potential to be an instant classic if the second film is as good or better. Where it stumbles from true greatness is in its abundance of obvious setup and franchise building – much like Fellowship of the Ring, it’s impossible to truly evaluate this film at a current state, because unlike the main character, I don’t suffer from visions of the future. Without knowing how its second part delivers on its promises, I can only recommend it strongly for anyone who wants to see an amazing film, filled to the brim with beautiful visuals, grand spectacle, and music fit to be released commercially. Unless you’re turned off by science fiction or complex plots, go and see it, preferably in the best cinema you can find.