World building in cinema can be a richly rewarding experience that will encircle and fully immerse the audience, pulling them out of their everyday lives and transporting them beyond their mind’s eye.
Crafting something intricate that will stand up to scrutiny and encourage repeat viewings while not overwhelming casual audiences is an especially tricky feat to accomplish. It’s one that director Denis Villeneuve tackles head-on with a flair for dramatic, picturesque visuals with a moving art gallery aesthetic that will surely thrill many and confound others.
Based on the Frank Herbert science fiction novel of the same name, Dune follows the son of a noble family charged with protecting valuable natural resources on the galaxy’s most dangerous planet while being thrust into a destiny beyond his understanding.
Villeneuve takes exceptional care to fully design and intricately flourish every note of Herbert’s novel to the point where the 155-minute run time of a film originally titled Dune: Part One feels narratively incomplete.
Because things are so long-winded in exposition and orienting viewers in the smaller details of the world of Arrakis, Dune can occasionally feel hollow and emotionally distant as characters pontificate about religious prophecies that never fully flesh out or political relationships that won’t come into play until an expected second film finishes Herbert’s original narrative.
Timothée Chalamet delivers a relatively commanding performance as the main character Paul, especially in more intense moments where Paul seemingly loses control over his emotions. Much of his role has softer tones as Paul attempts to find his way through a strange new world and because of the film’s structure, the work he’s doing likely will not pay off until the sequel bridges the gap.
Dune has a star-studded ensemble cast to surround Chalamet with, all of whom give considered, meaningful turns to help create the world of Villeneuve’s film.
Rebecca Ferguson gives the most emotionally resonant performance as Paul’s mother and it’s in the smaller moments opposite Chalamet or the confrontational moments with Charlotte Rampling that she truly shines.
Oscar Isaac is much more stoic and polished here than audiences may have seen him as more brash in the Star Wars sequels, but his Duke Leto is a drumbeat from which Villeneuve is able to build the political world of Dune.
For most of the 155-minute run time, Zendaya’s Chani appears simply as a clairvoyant vision in Paul’s dreams, a far-away whisper of things to come while not providing much to the actual film. Her presence is mainly to foreshadow the importance of her character in a potential second film not yet greenlit for production.
Smaller turns for Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin and Stellan Skarsgård also feel like placeholders for part two, though it’s Jason Momoa’s strongest theatrical turn as Paul’s weapons trainer and confidant Duncan Idaho that serves as standout among the secondary cast.
Villeneuve’s films have always had magical, artistic cinematography at the forefront and Dune is no exception with Greig Fraser’s visuals providing the backbone of the entire movie in keeping casual audiences engaged during the many overwrought and confusing moments for those unfamiliar with the novel’s canon.
It’s clear every frame of Dune has meaning beyond the simple visuals seen at first glance and exploring the nuance and unspoken iconography translated from Herbert’s novel will be a treasure trove that ardent fans will be scouring and debating over for years to come.
Even without dialogue or Hans Zimmer’s pulsating, ever-present score pounding in the ears of audiences, Villeneuve and Fraser have created a tapestry of art that transcends most big-budget blockbuster films and will remain the largest selling point for skeptical first-timers.
With a production as audacious and bold as Dune is, the exceptional quality of technical aspects of the film make it ripe for nominations, and likely wins, come awards season in below-the-line categories like cinematography, production design, editing and original score. In all likelihood, a Best Picture nod at the Oscars would make too much sense while voters could opt for more developed performances in other films rather than recognizing the ensemble cast of Dune in any notable way.
The spectacle on such an epic scale almost demands audiences seek Dune out in the largest theater possible to maximize the “experience” of it all, though the relative ease of access on HBO Max for more casual audiences to pause, rewind or segment out the film’s exceedingly dense subject matter and world building is more than acceptable as well.
Regardless, Villeneuve has crafted one of the year’s most complex and artistic cinematic films worthy of both acclaim and moviegoers’ time.