Dune ★★★★½

Fans had to wait long enough but now we finally have a movie adaptation that does the visionary source material justice. Denis Villeneuve´s “Dune” is spectacular cinema magic and so far the blockbuster of the year. I´m so glad I could experience it at an IMAX cinema, so that I could get the most out of this immersive, enthralling, and audiovisually breathtaking masterpiece.

Villeneuve´s work on “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049” paved the way for this majestic space opera, as “Dune” features all the technical brilliance you associate with the director´s earlier movies. It has glorious cinematography, rich and evocative imagery, phenomenal production design from the sets to the costumes, state of the art special effects, and a booming Hans Zimmer score that gives you goosebumps. The strongest aspects for me are the superb visual storytelling, and the excellent, highly detailed worldbuilding, may it come in form of the lived-in design of the architecture and technology (the ornithopters are a highlight for me), the strong sense of place - Arrakis is not a simple setting or backdrop, it´s one of if not the most important character of “Dune”- or the exploration of the deep and dense lore. Without much unnatural-feeling exposition, Villeneuve gets us immersed in this complex world and web of competing factions. Book readers will notice that the director had to simplify and condense some plot points, but that was to be expected. “Game of Thrones” showed us that political intrigues and conspiracies work best in a series format. Nevertheless, Villeneuve does a damn fine job adapting the complicated source material for the big screen. Without confusing his audience too much (I´m looking at you, David Lynch´s “Dune”), he tells a gripping, coherent story, while touching upon most of the novel´s themes such as politics, religion, culture, history, science, technology, ecology, warfare, fate, free will, betrayal, loyalty, family, duty, and many more. I´m especially glad that Villeneuve understood and accentuated Frank Herbert´s twist on the “chosen one” trope, making the concept much more morally ambivalent than it´s usually the case in fantasy and sci fi fiction. Most importantly, the film takes its time. It has a deliberate pacing and a more meditative, pensive tone than most blockbusters. Every scene has room to breathe, and therefore we can feel the gravitas and weight of important moments. The whole movie has a sense of grandeur that truly fits a large-scale sci fi epic like “Dune”.

Besides the astounding technical craftmanship and rich narrative and lore, the film has a third big strength, the stellar ensemble cast. Even though many of the characters are archetypes, the talented actors bring them all to life and fill them with personality, so that you enjoy spending 2,5 hours with them. The biggest praise deserve Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson, who play the two central human characters of the film, Paul Atreides and his mother Lady Jessica. Paul´s journey is mostly an introspective one, so Chalamet has to convey a lot of complex emotions through subtle facial expressions, and he does a tremendous job. Similarly, Jessica is a deeply conflicted woman, who internally struggles to reconcile her duties as a royal concubine, mother, and Bene Gesserit, and this struggle is powerfully portrayed by Ferguson. Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem also leave strong impressions. As expected, Zendaya´s screen time is very short, but her presence makes you excited for her expanded role in Part 2.

There are some aspects that didn´t fully work for me. The film is grim, serious, and humorless, which is fine, but in my opinion, it´s also a bit cold. There are a few emotional moments that clicked with me, but most of the time I was more awestruck than truly emotionally moved or invested. And while Villeneuve clearly is a master of suspenseful buildup, he is not the best action director. That being said, “Dune” is full of stunning set pieces and unforgettable, exhilarating moments. If I had to choose a favorite scene it would be the entire sequence leading up to the first appearance of a sandworm. Scenes like that further fuel my love for large-scale cinema.

Villeneuve´s “Dune” feels like the beginning of an epic journey, and most importantly, it conveys the fascination of Herbert´s immersive, detailed, and meticulously crafted world. I´m sure that the film will have a similar effect as the “The Lord of the Rings” movies in the sense that it will make many average moviegoers say: “Ok fine, I´ll finally start reading these books you nerds have praised for decades.” This is probably what Villeneuve wanted to achieve with his adaptation. His deep understanding and respect for the source material permeates the entire film and is a major reason why it turned out so well. I left the cinema totally satisfied.

Denis Villeneuve´s spectacular run of fantastic movies that went on through the entire 2010s continues in this new decade. He is one of cinema´s greats and I hope that his run will go on for a long time, the next step preferably being “Dune: Part 2”.

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