Dune 2021: Incomparable By Choice

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Having seen the 2021 Dune movie by Denis Villeneuve, I’m not going to compare it to other takes or other films. Let’s talk about it on its own first.

Dune 2021 quickly introduces us to the world of the far future through the viewpoint of an initially nameless inhabitant of the titular planet (Chani, played by Zendaya). Through her angry eyes, we learn of Dune’s exploitation as its sands hold the drug known as Spice. Under the oppressive hand of the noble-in-title-only family of the Harkonnens, the natives watch their world exploited. When the Harkonnens suddenly leave, the natives assume they will have only a change of oppressors.

Suddenly, our view switches to the planet of Caladan, home of house Artredes, appointed to rule Dune by sudden and suspicious Imperial Decree. Our viewpoint is now that of Paul (Timothée Chalamet), an understandably moody young noble. Paul is caught up in political machinations, his need for an identity, and his mother’s involvement in a mysterious, mystical sisterhood, the Bene Gesserit. Despite wealth and power (possibly precognitive power) Paul is a pawn in many other games.

Chalamet’s Paul was where I truly began to appreciate the human-centric approach to Dune. We’ve all known Pauls, talented and well-meaning people enmeshed in obligations and demands that threatened to strangle their own identities. Less poetically, Paul is that slightly moody and awkward teenager whose moodiness is entirely understandable.

The film slowly and gradually moves onto the larger plots of intrigues and backstabbing, of visions and manufactured messiahs. For those somehow unfamiliar with the story, it would spoil the tale. For those familiar with the story, it is useless to summarize them. I would rather spend space describing how the film is done.

Theatrical is the word I finally used to describe the Dune of 2021. As grand as the world and the effects may be, the film stays focused on the characters. It is a tale of intimacy among sweeping planetscapes and galactic machinations. There is grandeur and impressive effects a-plenty, but these are backdrops to the characters because it is their story.

The moments I remember the most are the personal ones over special effects. Paul yelling in frustration over what people have tried to make him. The enduring bravery of Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) as he faces danger. The stoic yet fracturing expressions of Jessica Artredes (Rebecca Ferguson) as she navigates political and emotional minefields. Even battles with nameless troops have an impact because of well-chosen effects and shots that make the deaths and pain seem real.

The cast is universally excellent and embraces their roles appropriately but also with dignity. It would take little effort for me to praise each actor, but I prefer you experience the film for itself. I easily imagined this cast could have been filmed in front of paintings and still done a fine job.

Now, with a review comparing Dune 2021 to nothing else, let me now compare it to things.

First, I refuse to compare it to Lynch’s Dune or the Syfy television series. Each was made under different conditions, at different times, with different goals.  Dune is a challenging property to make anyway, and I feel all have their virtues and visions. This film is a vision as well.

It is also a vision that breaks every Holywood rule of the last few decades to deliver that vision. It hasn’t been cut or refined to fit assumptions and marketing calculations. There is no “save the cat” here to fit convenient audience expectations. No one holds your hand as a guide on the byzantine backstory; one has to pay attention. Finally, it’s two and a half hours long, and it’s only part one.

I’d put Dune 2021 up there with such things as Kwaidan and Silent Running. To see it is to experience a vision of what was wanted, a consistent, personal take on the story. It may not be an easy experience, but like Paul, you get farther when you seek a vision and follow it through pain and fire to something greater.

Did I enjoy Dune 2021? No, I experienced it, and that is a need all too rarely satisfied.

Steven Savage