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‘Dune’ Review: A Visually Stunning, Emotionally Lacking Sci-Fi Epic

Dir. Denis Villeneuve — 4 Stars

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in "Dune"
Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in "Dune" By Courtesy of Warner Bros
By Lanz Aaron G. Tan, Crimson Staff Writer

From the sweeping sand dunes of Arrakis to the towering concrete bunkers of Caladan, nothing can prepare audiences for the raw spectacle that is Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” The Academy-Award-nominated director (“Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049”) has crafted an anomalous film in today’s blockbuster era. Whatever “Dune” lacks in original storytelling, it more than makes up for with its methodical pace, awe-inspiring cinematography, and powerful sound design. In short, “Dune” is sci-fi storytelling on an epic scale — a completely transportive experience that audiences rarely get in cinemas anymore.

Villeneuve’s film is an adaptation of the first half of Frank Herbert’s eponymous novel. It follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), heir to Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and son of the Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Everything starts to unravel when the emperor gifts House Atreides with the resource-rich planet Arrakis, formerly bequeathed to the tyrannical House Harkonnen. It’s a thinly-veiled power play: soon, House Atreides is at the mercy of House Harkonnen, who return with reinforcements in a crusade against the Duke. Meanwhile, Paul makes inroads with the native Fremen tribe, hoping to build an alliance to stop House Harkonnen.

While “Dune” is wrapped in intricate layers of intriguing world building, from the magical Bene Gesserit sisterhood to the gargantuan 400-foot sandworm, it’s a pretty simple story at its core. Paul is the “chosen-one,” a space messiah prophesied to save the Fremen and end the war on Arrakis. Audiences have seen the “chosen-one” archetype recapitulated again and again, from “Star Wars” to “Harry Potter” to “Superman.” Though there’s nothing wrong with revisiting tried-and-tested territory, it’s not handled with much subtlety in “Dune.”

Perhaps the film feels hollow because Paul is a blank protagonist. “Dune” is a story about Paul’s exploration of self-identity as he follows in the footsteps of his father. But that journey is largely emotionless. Villeneuve actually executes this theme with far more poignancy in “Blade Runner 2049,” where he resists the urge to spoon-feed audiences, and forces them to sieve through clues about the protagonist, K. “Blade Runner 2049” asked audiences thoughtful questions: How do memories shape our identity? And if our memories are artificial, does that make us any less human? But what was careful and nuanced in “2049” is ham-handed in “Dune” as Paul is imbued with mostly forgettable characteristics. Perhaps Villeneuve wanted to leave Paul as a blank canvas for audiences to project their own emotions onto. But audiences aren’t automatically going to be invested in a character just because he asks “Am I the messiah?” every few minutes.

Just as his previous sci-fi films “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049,” Villeneuve paces “Dune” methodically. This gives time for audiences to soak in the gargantuan scope of the film: it allows the film’s A-list ensemble cast to give weighty performances, and it lends more gravity to the film’s thrilling action scenes. It also means that Arrakis feels like a fully realized, lived-in world, with its unique brand of politics, religions, architecture, and monsters.

Put simply, “Dune” excels at being big. From shots of the sandcrawler-esque spice-mining machines to ones of a giant sandworm, Villeneuve frames the film’s many compelling action scenes in gorgeous wides. Cinematographer Greig Fraser’s desaturated colors might feel muted compared to the sharp contrast and neon backdrop of “Blade Runner 2049,” but it adds character to the desert and mood to the stunningly detailed, formalist production designs. Fraser mentioned in an interview that he filmed “Dune” in digital before converting it to 35mm, and the resulting grain adds a hallucinatory quality to the sand. Fraser also changes the color grading during Paul’s visions — turning the once dark, mysterious desert into an overexposed, trance-like realm.

What’s remarkable about the scope in “Dune” is that it feels so tactile, and that’s in large part due to careful attention to sound design. The theater quite literally shakes whenever the sandworm approaches, and there’s a soft, tense hum whenever characters activate their body shields, ready for combat. In particular, a score from Hans Zimmer (“Inception,” “Gladiator”) dominates “Dune.” It’s haunting, chilling, and plays up the mystical elements of the vast world building in the film. The awe-inspiring sound and visuals cocoon viewers in a barrage of sensory stimuli that makes for a visceral viewing experience.

Villeneuve once quipped that his live-action adaptation of “Dune” was going to be “Star Wars” for adults. While his film doesn’t quite have the emotion and heart to earn that moniker, “Dune” is a masterful technical display of what more blockbuster films should be.

—Staff writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at and on Twitter @LanzAaronGTan1.

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