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‘Dune’ Review: Denis Villeneuve Mounts An Epic Spectacle Powered By Timothée Chalamet And Hans Zimmer’s Score

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Do you believe in fate and destiny? With the cinema halls opening up in my city—Mumbai—on October 22, there’s this palpable excitement in the air. You know everyone wants to go to the theatres and watch something satisfying. And there… at this crucial point… Dune releases. The Denis Villeneuve film, based on the science fiction series by Frank Herbert, feels like the Chosen One for true-blue film fans because when you watch this spectacle on that IMAX screen, it’ll make you feel the incredible, unmatchable joy of watching movies on a big screen, and probably just weep like I did. You’d think I was being hyperbolic, but really, there is no other way to describe the experience. Dune: Part One stars Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, along with Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Charlotte Rampling, Javier Bardem, and Zendaya.

 

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The screenplay is by Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Denis Villeneuve; the cinematography is by Greig Fraser, editing by Joe Walker, and that goosebump-inducing score is by Hans Zimmer.

In preparation for watching Dune, which is just as challenging a read as the planet Arrakis is to inhabit, I embarked on the task of reading the book before I watched the film. I stopped before the last 150 pages because I wanted to surprise myself when I watched it. Dune, the first book in the Dune saga by Frank Herbert, is split into three parts. What the promotions carefully avoid mentioning is that the film is, in fact, Dune: Part One, which means the movie adapts just a little over the first part of the first book.

This also addresses another complaint that many early reviewers have had about how the film’s marketing misleads the extent of Zendaya’s role in the film. It’s a valid complaint because not everyone can be expected to read the book before watching the movie, and know that her character, Chani, appears midway into the 800+ page novel. In this Dune: Part One, she has a role smaller than a heroine’s in a Bollywood film. I was prepared, so I tempered my expectations, but I am all for supporting non-readers’ criticism for this particular gimmick. Maybe they just wanted to play on Timothée and Zendaya’s friendship and chemistry, which BTW, have you seen their interviews? I heart!

 

 

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And that, folks, is the end of my issues with Dune. Because the rest of it is a freaking masterpiece of epic proportions, that really does, as most international reviewers have called it, feel like a mix of The Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars, Mad Max: Fury Road and a bunch of other epic movies that you’ve loved for their rich mythology and characters, emotional depth, scale, and intergalactic power plays. More importantly, the film resurges the relevance of the themes that Herbert explored in his books all those years ago—the fallible hero, religious fanaticism, war, colonisation, environmentalism, and gender—all of which are issues we are dealing with in our time. I particularly feel the Chosen One track and the religious fanaticism that comes with unwavering blind faith in a hero is something we’re seeing a lot of today.

Dune is a faithful adaptation of the book and its themes, beautifully paced, without overwhelming a new entrant

To sum up Dune in the most primitive way possible…. By the order of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, House Atreides of the ocean planet Caladan is granted the fief of the inhospitable desert planet Arrakis, which was for 80 years, ruled by House Harkonnen. Arrakis is important because its where ‘spice’ or ‘melange’ is mined, which is the hottest commodity in space, being a psychotropic drug that enhances prescience powers in humans, thereby allowing intergalactic space travel.

Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto (leader of House Atreides) and his concubine Jessica (who belongs to a religious sisterhood called Bene Gesserit, deemed ‘witches’ for their training in physical and mental powers), has been having dreams of Arrakis even before setting foot there. Trained in the ways of warfare as well as his mother’s Bene Gesserit skills, a test rouses suspicions that Paul might be the Chosen One, a messiah for the natives of Arrakis, a tribe of people knowns as the Fremen, who mine the spice and worship the sandworms (giant worm-like creatures underneath the desert surface).

As House Harkonnen sets a plan in motion to destroy House Atreides, Paul must grapple with the changes around him, not just to his physical world in the new planet, but also to his mental capabilities to ‘see’ through space and time that are unlocked, thanks to the spice in the Arrakis air, setting him on the path of the messiah.

As someone who read the daunting book and had it so fresh in her memory, I was concerned how Denis Villeneuve would be able to introduce this world for first-time visitors without overwhelming them. And let me tell you, they’ve done a fantastic job of it. There’s a lot of information that has been wisely held back which was generously shared in the books, including several characters not introduced and journeys and passing of time cut short, to ensure that the pace doesn’t languish or the plot doesn’t become overstuffed. At the same time, though, the passage of time or the shuffling between different planets—Caladan, Arrakis, Geidi Prime, Salusa Secondus—and characters flows extremely well and keeps you engrossed.

Another daunting task, introducing the technology and terminology of Dune, has also been handled efficiently without resorting to too much exposition or confusing people with the names and meanings of things. I made it a point to check in with fellow watchers who were non-readers, and we agreed that even if you haven’t read the book, Dune: Part One is exactly as its name suggests, a preliminary part of this story that really initiates you well into the ways of the Imperium and its many cultures. I am actually most excited to see, in its sequel, how they tackle the Fremen way of life.

Denis Villeneuve mounts a visually thrilling spectacle of epic proportions that dwarfs you and turns you into a curious child full of wonder

Imagine yourselves watching a movie that leaves you in awe of every single frame, and makes you constantly wonder how the cast and crew managed to shoot these sequences. The scale is massive, which I believe is fitting for this world that Frank Herbert has birthed, and Denis Villeneuve does live up to every expectation you might have from him as a filmmaker and from Dune’s translation on the screen in a year like 2021. Every scene is beautiful to behold, be it the wider shots of Caladan and Arrakis scenery, the well-choreographed action sequences, or scenes where the camera closes in to capture the characters’ expressions, particularly Paul’s. The first half of the film, which is mostly set in Caladan, has some stunning frames. And of course, the scale of what happens in Arrakis quite literally blows your mind.

 

 

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The production design, the costumes, the sets… all of it really show just how much time, effort, and money—the film is mounted on a budget of roughly $165 million—has gone into putting it together. There are scenes that pretty much dwarf you as you feel a part of this world, but at the same time, the emotional depths are not lost in the pursuit of scale. I love that about the film because it was one of my biggest concerns put to rest.

Most of the time, I felt like a child in wonder, wanting to step right through that IMAX screen, and take apart the spaceships, the glow globes or the para-compass, or to feel the stillsuits that the Fremen wear to see just how it would feel and what makes each of them tick! Or just touch that sand, you know? I don’t think I’ve felt this engrossed and inquisitive for a long, long time. Perhaps, not since Harry Potter? 

The score by Hans Zimmer is the spice that unlocks the full potential of Dune

Okay, so I have been listening to the maestro’s score ever since he dropped the first couple of tracks, and can I just say Dune’s soundtrack is a revelation, perhaps one of Hans Zimmer’s finest? If I were to give you a reference for how the soundtrack made me feel emotionally, it was like listening to AR Rahman’s soundtrack for Taal. It induces goosebumps, every time. The first time I felt the full power of it was during the Gom Jabbar scene, which was also spectacularly acted by Timothée Chalamet. Whether you take the Herald of Change scene (oooh Benjamin Clementine was so imposing in this one!) or the arrival of the Bene Gesserit at Caladan, the noisy uncomfortable introduction of the Saudakar, or the fight in Arrakis, the music amps up the scale by so many notches.

It is easily the spice that unlocks the full potential of Dune, and really elevates the experience and scale of the film.

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Timothée Chalamet is THE Chosen One alright!

Let’s talk about the performances, shall we? I thought everyone was really good. I loved the chemistry between sexy people Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson, as well as their performances individually. Isaac as Leto is *chef’s kiss*! When you see these characters in their relationships with Paul, they all felt like very lived-in performances, particularly Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho. Javier Bardem makes for a great Stilgar, and I like that Dr. Liet Kynes, the planetary ecologist, is a woman in the film!

But if we’re talking about perfect casting, the three that come to mind are Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, David Dastmalchian as the Mental Piter De Vries, and of course, Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides.

Skarsgård’s Baron is every bit the disgusting creepy and scary monstrosity that I expected him to be. Once again, I bring in Bollywood, but it was hard to not get déjà vu feels about Sanjay Dutt’s Kancha Cheena from Agneepath every time the Baron massaged his bald head or said something duplicitous. I love what has been done with the look of this character, particularly the suspensors, which are an integral part of his imposing personality, and the scenes crafted around him. I cannot wait to see more of the Baron, and his relationship with his nephews Beast Rabban (David Bautista, who you keep thinking of as a gentle giant because, well, Drax!) and the yet-to-be-cast Fyed Rautha.

 

 

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Timothée! Sigh. This is one beautiful boy, and the camera knows that making love to his face is the best way to reel us in, because a lot of what is happening to Paul is not said out loud, but witnessed in his face as he processes his inner turmoil about his “terrible purpose”. Also, yes, because he is one of the best sights of/in Dune. He is a fine actor and plays the Duke’s heir and the newly-awakened-but-already-burdened Chosen One with just the right balance of royal confidence and teenage self-doubt.

 

 

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One of the key themes in the Dune books, pertaining to the Kwisatz Haderach (chosen one) prophecy is that he is a male with Bene Gesserit training and powers (which are usually imparted only to females). Now, if you were to see Chalamet during Dune promotions, he looks perfectly androgynous in his appearance, through his dressing, his hair, his physique. In the film too, all of this puts him forth as an underestimated little boy, an odd specimen in a throng of large, beastly men. His Paul has the grit of his father’s house, and the prana bindu training and mental prowess of his mother, the shift in his mannerisms that go from soft to hard and back in seconds. And together, balancing the yin and the yang thus, he is the perfect Chosen One. It’s actually an idea quite relevant to this world, which currently is burdened by the war-mongering and bloated egos of men. And perhaps, to stop its destruction, we too need a balance of the male and the female.

Hopes for the sequel

Dune: Part One is the perfect initiation into this world. And I’ve read some of Denis Villeneuve’s interviews where he mentions in broader strokes how he plans to introduce certain characters and plot points that were not present in this movie. I do really hope we get more movies because this could really be an epic franchise!

Verdict: Watch Dune in theatres, DO IT!

In Dune, the Bene Gesserit (who are powerful women and therefore called “witches”, pfuit!) use “The Voice”,  a kind of hypnosis, to get others to do their bidding. If I could, I’d probably use it to command you to go to the theatres and watch this movie only on the big screen. What Denis Villeneuve and the entire crew and cast have created here is no easy feat, and it deserves nothing less.

There are people calling it an epic of the proportions of LOTR and Star Wars. They’re calling it the film event of the year. And they’re calling it a game-changer and a herald of the new cinema. And I am happy to report that all of it is true. As for the criticisms, I understand some of them, which are reasonable because Dune, in terms of its story, what has been shown, and what you’re going to have to be patient to see, might not be for everyone. But visually, it is a film that will make you realise what an absolute wonder the movies are!

Dune releases in cinemas in India on October 29, 2021.

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