Sunday, March 3, 2024

A Reality to Experience: Dune: Part One (2021) Review

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Notable Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, David Dastmalchian


Although Denis Villeneuve states that Dune was always a dream project for him, it’s fascinating to see how his career has been building up to this film. Whether it's the political and cultural conflicts at the heart of Sicario or the stylistic leap into Sci-Fi IP with Blade Runner 2049, his filmography reads like a road map building up skills to create the world of a successful cinematic Dune adaption.

And quite frankly, it led him to thrive in the film he will be remembered for as an auteur blockbuster director, Dune: Part One


Well, he might be remembered for the two films and not just this one part, as Dune: Part Two finally sees the light of day some three years later, but as the first half of his massive science fiction opera epic, Dune: Part One is an impressive feat of tone, storytelling, visuals, and finding balance. It’s the kind of totemic film that defines a career in a positive way, judging by the success of this film both commercially and in awards circles. Justifiably so. Dune: Part One is CINEMA in most of the best ways, and its blend of commercial appeal and auteur-driven style is impeccable, to say the least. 


Perhaps that is Dune: Part One’s greatest strength is finding balance. Denis Villeneuve strikes a remarkable navigation model of knowing when the film needs to be bombastic and when it needs to be subtle. Its plot might feel even more “on the nose” now with its narrative that tables themes around oppression, colonialism, political divides, resource domination, religious devotion (and deviation), and the dangers of charismatic leaders. Still, Villeneuve manages to thread the needle, never making it feel as politically and culturally toothy as it can be interpreted. 


Most of this is because Dune: Part One is a film that feels complete already. Not only do the production designs and brilliant visual effects have that “lived-in” quality to define the world in ways that are both spectacular and just flawed enough to feel real, but the narrative never feels as though it's holding its viewers' hand as it introduces them to the world. The opening voice-over that sets the stage feels less like exposition, and more like the confessional diary entry of its character, Chani played with striking potency by Zendaya. Even as the political stage is being set in its first half, Dune: Part One smartly pops its dialogue in a way that feels grounded and human, versus feeling like a vomitous series of sci-fi gobbildy gook. 


How the story unfolds retains such a human heart that so many visuals and artistic designs feel complimentary to the characters rather than defining them. Although Villeneuve has always been known for the iconic look of his films, both in their gorgeously shot cinematography and in his seamless use of visual effects (particularly in his later films), it is the subtle character-building and strong performances all around that carry so much of the weight of this film. Timothée Chalamet gets to carry the largest character arc that drives so many of the film’s themes with remarkable ease as the core to the ‘chosen one’ narrative for Paul Atreides. Still, he’s surrounded by an impeccable cast powering up layered performances that build this intriguing family dynamic around him. Oscar Isaac, as his father, gets to deliver cool, capable dad energy smoothly, both Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa give loving, hard-ass uncle vibes, and Rebecca Ferguson gets to steal the show with her neurotic, torn mother performance where she must balance her love for her family with her dedication to her religious affiliation with the Bene Gesserit - aka the space witch cult that adds in the religious theming. 


Even when Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, or Chang Chen show up for a couple of scenes to build out the world and lay the groundwork for an upcoming sequel, they pop off the screen and perform their duties while remaining memorable to give the expanding world of Dune some well-needed energy for its extensive run time. So much of what’s happening with their performances feels superfluous, but it's necessary for its theming and narrative weight for them to work. 


Where Dune: Part One could have easily gone off the mark in its action. So many science fiction epics lean into the fantasy of their action set pieces, but Dune smartly leans into realism. Even when the film is moving towards its fantastical elements, particularly around Paul’s visions or through the use of the giant sandworms, the Shai Hulud, that mark some of the more memorable moments of the latter half of the film, Villeneuve sinks into more realistic aspects to keep the film grounded. The fighting feels like a war movie, the weapons rarely feel like pew-pew guns, and there are human stakes in each action set piece - particularly in the dire bleakness of the final act. As with the rest of the film, it’s a choice to ground Dune: Part One, which makes everything work better and elevates its genre material to impressive levels.

Granted, I’m writing this review some three years after the film's release in theaters, but as I rewatched the film in preparation for a Dune: Part Two show, I felt compelled to write this down for that upcoming review of the sequel. Multiple rewatches only deepens the experience of Dune: Part One, and while I have always been a fan of Villeneuve’s films and their overall nihilistic tendencies in criticizing humanity while maintaining the heart of humanity’s complex experience, Dune: Part One might be one of his best. It’s epic in its nature, complex in its characterizations, and bold in its choices to adapt the source material. The film might be about the sandiest place in the universe, but this film certainly goes down smoothly. 


Let’s see if Dune: Part Two can live up to the setup. 


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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