By John H. Foote
(***) But should be (****)
In theatres with very limited streaming
The three stars are here only because this excellent film tells just half the story. We are waiting for Warner Brothers to fund the sequel, and they are waiting for box office grosses. At nearly three hours director Denis Villeneuve tells just half the story, sadly, ending just as things are getting interesting. Here is hoping Warner Brothers does the right thing and allows Villeneuve to tell the rest of the tale.
If you can, see Dune in a theatre on the biggest screen you can find. Watching it for the first time, was like seeing Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for the first time on a big screen, galvanizing and visually life altering. It is not just the extraordinary desert vistas and massive sand worms. Villeneuve introduces us to an entire new universe, space, planets and the inhabitants of those worlds. He is an imaginative visual master, making him exactly the right director to make this film.
Villeneuve has become one of the finest directors working in modern cinema, and an important one in the last 12 years. His career began as a filmmaker in Quebec, a province with its own burgeoning cinema and a captive French-speaking audience. His early work, Cosmos (1996) and Maelstrom (2000) impressed critics when screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, but his later work Polytechnique (2009) was a Canadian masterpiece, greeted with rave reviews, a chilling narrative about the Montreal massacre of 1989 when a lone gunmen murdered 14 young women at a university. Filmed in black and white from the point of view of the killer, it was a lacerating, unforgiving film that remains a dark, searing work. His next film, Incendies (2010), earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Foreign Language Film, and again was well received around the globe. This was the film that brought Hollywood to Villeneuve and his first American film, Prisoners (2013) with Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano, a gruesome character study about a violent man trying to find his kidnapped daughter. He worked with Gyllenhaal again with Enemy (2013), which garnered strong reviews for the actor.
But it was the drug cartel thriller Sicario (2015) that brought the director a following in Hollywood. The studios took notice and suddenly he was a rising star in Hollywood.
Arrival (2016) remains his masterpiece, a stunning film about an alien race who has landed several identical ships around the globe to deliver a gift to mankind. Amy Adams was stunning as a linguist who deciphers the visual language of the aliens and communicates with them. Daring and masterful, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director but incredibly Adams was snubbed, one of the most ridiculous oversights of the last 50 years. It was Arrival that marked Villeneuve as a major filmmaker and earned him the job of directing the long-awaited sequel to Blade Runner (1982).
Blade Runner 2049 (2017) was a masterwork as well, though not as strong as Arrival. Visually arresting, the film was a complicated follow up to the equally difficult 1982 film that had confounded audiences for years. In the sequel, Ryan Gosling is a blade runner, on the trail of something huge. Harrison Ford has a supporting role in the film, and as good as the actors are, and they are wonderful, this is Villeneuve’s film, the work of a visionary.
Now we have Dune, a remake of dreadful 1984 film directed by David Lynch, and adaptation of the superb Frank Herbert novel, one of the greatest science fictions ever written. Lynch’s film was a messy, grimy-looking film that the 1980s could easily been spared. The results sent Lynch scrambling back to the independent world, despising the big budget world of filmmaking. When he signed on, Villeneuve made it clear his film would not be a remake, but rather a complete adaptation of the novel, a fresh start.
The film opens by letting us know this is part one of the journey, implying that another film is coming. If the sequel is half as good as this first film, count me in as one of the critics most looking forward to it.
This is a vast, massive film from a director confident in his craft, fully aware of each shot, of each cut, of each movement and word. Beautifully directed, Dune is something very special (though it might be criticized by some for its length).
Set in the very distant future, Earth appears to be gone, and humans has evolved and mutated into various forms and spirits. The Atreides family have been tasked with ruling the vast desert planet of Arrakis, where the precious “spice” is mined. In protecting the spice, they are protecting both their immediate future and the long-term future of the universe. Also guarding the spice are skyscraper-size sand worms, which must be seen to be believed. They alone will land the film Best Visual Effects, and Cinematography Oscars.
Young Paul (Timothée Chalamet) does not know it yet, but he is the messiah who will save the future for mankind. Immature, inexperienced as a warrior, he doesn’t look capable of saving anything, but give him time. His father, the Duke (Oscar Isaac) is tasked by the powerful Emperor to take control of the sand planet Arrakis and protect the spice, which he agrees to do without realizing he is being duped, led into a trap. He hopes he can talk the workers of the planet to side with him, but badly mistakes the forces aligned against him. The Emperor has done his job well.
Having arrived on the desert planet, young Paul immediately recognizes the extreme challenges to surviving this environment. Gigantic sand worms lurk below the surface, ready to attack at any time. The heat is so intense, cooling suits must be worn to be outside. And of course, he realizes the spice impacts him in various ways. To begin, his eyes change colour, the inhabitants of the planet all have intense blue eyes, and Paul changes, gaining new levels of mental acuity. His dreams intensify and he gradually comes to accepts his role as messiah to the planet.
Remember seeing Star Wars (1977) for the first time? Dune does not move like Star Wars, and its characters are much better drawn and created, but its creation of the world is reminiscent, perhaps more specifically of The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
The production designers do superb work and I think have the Oscars for their achievements locked up. But a film like this lives and dies by the performances and how much the audience invests in the actors and their characters. The performances are wonderful throughout, with Timothée Chalamet continuing his growth into a powerfully subtle actor. After astounding critics in Call Me By Your Name (2017) which earned him an Academy Award nomination and the New York Film Critics Award as Best Actor, he proves here he can carry a massive film on his shoulders. Oscar Isaac is brilliant as the Duke, a good man carrying the burden of the universe on his shoulders, and knowing it could mean the sacrifice of his son. Zendaya is ghostly as the mysterious Chani, the girl who inhabits Paul’s dreams as well as his life. Burly Jason Momoa, Aquaman himself, is excellent as the warrior Duncan and digs deeper into this character than he ever has before.
Great work comes from Rebecca Ferguson, David Bautista, Stellan Skarsgård Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem as well. None of the actors are dwarfed by the massive scope of the film, and let me be clear, the film is massive. They simply do not make films this big anymore. I think the last time might have been David Lean’s extraordinary Dr. Zhivago (1965) or Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975).
Dune tells about one-third of the story in the book. Come on you suits at Warner Brothers—give the director the money he needs to finish this compelling story. Release again those incredible sand worms!
One of the year’s finest and most extraordinary films. But still three stars until we see the sequel.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.