Dune: The First Half of a Massive Blockbuster Saga

“It begins,” proclaimed the theater screen at our press showing. That is the most fitting thing to say about Dune, a film with a beginning, a middle, and no apparent ending. It has begun. A titan franchise has been born into theaters. And I certainly hope you will see it on a big enough screen. Because, it earns the prerequisite of a large enough frame through the largess of its worldbuilding. Chiefly, it earns an outsized size and scope on the very merits of Hans Zimmer’s highly original score, which exudes puffs of high-powered sci-fi space dust, like inhaling melange on Arrakis itself and hallucinating that Warner Bros. thought it was a good idea to funnel this much money into half of a movie.

That will be the sticking point, with any audience, and that separates most outcomes between the good, the bad, and the people who just wanted to watch Timothée Chalamet lead a legitimate tentpole movie. Do you care if a movie ends, really? Does it materially impact this great preliminary film, if there is nothing there to meet in the end? If it’s all bluster and smoke and mirrors and no conclusion, only surmising half of one of the greatest science fiction books, but doing so with mesmerizing blockbuster precision, does that truly matter in your own outcomes? Dune is an enormous check that simply cannot be cashed. Not for the moment. You must carry the check with you, for several years, and hope for a confluent secondary outcome, one that matches the first, lest they decide to make more of it at all. That does not immediately matter to me. It’s enough, for me, to have the most excellent time that inflated high budget filmmaking can produce. It’s more than good enough, for me, that Dune surpasses most cineliterate science fiction spectacles.

It’s truly not David Lynch’s Dune (1984), it is far more comfortable in the studio system than that. It’s worlds apart from the impossible dream film of Jorodowsky’s Dune (do see the remarkable 2013 documentary). It’s not Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), from my understanding and early reading of the first quarter of the book (or, what comprises half this movie). It’s absolutely Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and has the quintessential earmarks of his filmography, which has established the greatest series of science fiction ideals in the twenty-first century. He does not even have a relative in this space. If Blade Runner 2049 was an absurd film that no studio rightly should’ve made, under the premise that a movie is a handshake between commerce and art, and that movie had no commercial outreach, then Dune is a more understandable handshake deal. It does the part, the thing all movies that cost a lot need to do these days: it provides rapid potential for expansion. Meanwhile, it navigates the original text with intelligence and some visual grace, with incredible digital effects work, a memorable score that builds a world, and some very high profile actors who give honest, careful performances.

There is hardly any bad news here, except how little ground is covered, for a runtime that stretches over a solid two and a half hours. Timothée Chalamet handily answers the question of whether he can lead an operatic epic and whether or not he can properly emote. He can do both with aplomb. As Paul, he navigates each scene with guarded emotional intelligence, understanding of his character, and how to act paired against the rest of his cast. Villeneuve proves highly capable at directing an ensemble cast, as everyone does their part, and there is hardly any fat left on the bone. Rebecca Ferguson is so, so good, and enchanting as Paul’s mother, and plays to her strengths. Likewise, Jason Momoa, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem, are cast right in their respective wheelhouses, and their combination works. Especially so for Javier Bardem, who gives the greatest performance of the picture as Stilgar, leader of a nomadic Fremen tribe. If anyone is slighted, and she certainly is, it’s Zendaya as Chani, who plays about as much time in Paul’s flash-forward dream sequences as she does in the literal text, which is hardly at all. Zendaya plays toward a big tease in the next movie, which almost must be an inevitability, just to will more of her performance into existence.

Dune does everything you need it to do. It functions exactly as advertised. In the grim future of franchises taken exclusively as products, Dune is the most functional of products. Every box can be checked here. Villeneuve is a director of great ability, capable of producing such awe and admiration. Dune does just enough of that. You do need to see it on a large screen. It requires at least that amount of engagement. From a gargantuan doorstopper of a novel to half a movie, by pure necessity, we also require more of Dune. It’s exactly the product that any giant company wants: one that begs for more. One that creates an internal demand. Although, oddly, it doesn’t have a cliffhanger or anything, so much as it simply ends in the middle of a quest. It asks us to pick up the book and fill in the pieces. To go back and engage with the original work. To watch Lynch’s Dune, if you must. To ask for more Dune. For now, it’s a check written for an amount that cannot be cashed but gives us every hope that someday, we’ll get the whole picture, and that will be a hell of a thing to witness.


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