For a movie about spices, DUNE (2021) isn’t all that zesty.
Yes, one of the main plot points in DUNE is that the most valuable commodity in the universe these days is spices, mostly because in the future in which these people live, it’s the main ingredient in their ships’ warp drives, and so the races that control the spice trade have all the power. It’s the oil of its day.
DUNE is based on the celebrated science fiction novel by Frank Herbert, and it was filmed once before in 1984 by director David Lynch, with mixed results.
Denis Villeneuve is at the helm this time around. Villeneuve directed one of my favorite movies of the past few years, SICARIO (2015), which was my pick for the top movie that year. He also directed the well-respected BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017). So I was excited to see what he would bring to this project.
And what he brought was a visual style and mood to this piece which plays out in a deliberate fashion that keeps this one intriguing yet low key throughout. I was always interested, but I was never excited. Not a good thing for a two and half hour movie.
The biggest problem with the story told in this version of DUNE is it’s all about potential and never really focuses on the here and now. It’s the story of young Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) who’s the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), whose people have inherited control over the much sought-after spice planet when the emperor rules that the current owners move out and Atreide’s people move in. Paul is the heir to the dukedom, but more so, he’s viewed as a “chosen one” by the indigenous race who lives on the spice planet who have been fighting their oppressors for independence for generations.
Amidst deceit and war over the spices, Paul is destined to emerge as an all powerful leader in the struggle for independence. But alas, that’s the story for another movie! As young Chani (Zendaya) tells him near the film’s conclusion, “this is just the beginning.”
Um, no it’s not. This is the END of the movie, sweetheart.
And that’s the biggest problem I had with this version of DUNE. The entire two hours and thirty five minutes are spent setting up the next movie. Why not just skip all this stuff and get to the part of the story you want to tell? I found this exceedingly frustrating.
The screenplay by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth doesn’t help. Nearly every character in this movie is wooden and sleep-inducing, the situations slow and uninspiring, and the action scenes few and far between. This one could have used a heavy dose of some of those valued spices, that’s for sure! And these guys are seasoned screenwriters— heh, heh— with lots of credits. You’d think this screenplay would have struck gold. But it doesn’t. It’s all so bland.
The best part of DUNE is its cast, which reads like a who’s-who of tough guys and superhero movie veterans.
Timothee Chalamet gets the lead role here as Paul Atreides, and he acquits himself quite well. Chalamet has delivered strong performances in such films as LADY BIRD (2017) and LITTLE WOMEN (2019), but I liked him even more here as Paul Atreides. It’s a quiet understated performance, which Chalamet does well. I enjoyed his performance throughout the movie, but I just kept waiting for him to do something, which again is the main problem with this movie. Chalamet provides some great acting with an interesting character, but if you want to see him do something significant, you will have to wait until the next movie.
Oscar Isaac is very good as Paul’s honest and well-respected father, Duke Leto, who rules with great integrity. Which means he doesn’t stand a chance in this world of brutal and vicious dictators. Isaac is an excellent actor who played Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS trilogy, but he’s delivered far more notable performances in such films as EX MACHINA (2014) and OPERATION FINALE (2018). Isaac turns in another solid performance here.
Rebecca Ferguson is on hand as Paul’s mystic mother Lady Jessica, and she’s very good as well. While not as memorable as she was as the menacing Rose the Hat in DOCTOR SLEEP (2019), she does achieve better results than her last turn as Mae, the mysterious stranger who walks into Hugh Jackman’s life in the recent subpar science fiction tale REMINISCENCE (2021).
Jason Momoa, Aquaman himself, plays Duncan Idaho, a loyal warrior for the Atreides family. Momoa as he almost always does imbues his character with a charismatic personality, so much so, that it’s too bad he’s not in the movie more. He gets some of the film’s best scenes. He’s not in this one nearly enough. It was good to see Momoa on top of his game again, after seeing him in the pretty lame actioner SWEET GIRL (2021) earlier this year.
Josh Brolin, who played the most infamous Marvel superhero movie villain yet, Thanos, in the AVENGERS films, here plays Gurney Halleck, the Duke’s head of security. Halleck could have used some of Thanos’ superpowers in this one. And Dave Bautista, who plays Drax in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and the AVENGERS movies, plays Beast Rabban Harkonnen, one of the baddies, but Bautista is barely in this one and hardly makes an impact.
Faring better is Stellan Skarsgard as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the main villain in the movie. Sure, he’s practically unrecognizable under CGI, motion capturing effects, and make-up, but he still delivers one of the better performances in the movie. Skarsgard is a superior actor with a ton of credits, who today is largely known for his role as scientist Erik Selvig in the Marvel THOR and AVENGERS movies.
The same can be said for Javier Bardem, who appears briefly as Stilgar, the leader of the indigenous race fighting for their independence on the spice planet. He only has a couple of scenes, but he makes his mark in each of them. Bardem is another superior actor with a long and varied career, and he played one of the more memorable Bond villains in recent memory, Silva, in SKYFALL (2012). Of course, for me, his most memorable role remains hitman Anton Chigurh, in the Coen brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) in which incidentally he also co-starred with Josh Brolin.
I also enjoyed Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet Kynes as she turns in a nice performance as a mysterious yet ultimately likable character. And Zendaya spends the bulk of this movie in brief snapshots from Paul’s dreams, and her character Chani doesn’t show up for real until the film’s conclusion. So, like everything else in this movie, if you want to know more about her, you’ll have to wait for the next film.
Visually, DUNE is satisfying, and you can’t go wrong with the cast, but the story is as flat as a deflated dune. A nice microcosm of this movie’s problems is there are these massive and dangerous worms that travel underneath the sand which makes spice harvesting dangerous. Do you think we ever get to see these monsters? Nope. That’s kind of how the entire movie plays out. There’s all this potential, all this talk about prophecies, the chosen one, oppressors, and fighting for independence, but none of this happens in this movie. It’s all a set up for the next movie.
DUNE is okay. It would have been better had the filmmakers paid attention to the movie they were making rather than the one they plan to make next.
And frankly, after watching DUNE, I can’t say I’m all that excited about sitting through a DUNE 2.
It was all just a bit too bland for my palate. Pass me the pepper and salt.