Dune is an epic and sweeping triumph that shows that patient, contemplative blockbusters can still be financially successful.
The first thing that stands out about Dune is the sheer scope of it all. I don’t think I have ever seen a film this massive before. The different spaceships, aerial cityscapes, and giant sandworms were awe-inspiring. The production design was subtle and textured, everything felt alien and ancient at the same time. The locations and sets all felt like a small sliver of a much larger world with a rich history. Villeneuve showcases so much patience with these images and scenes, letting you soak in them. At times the film felt like a futuristic documentary of a distant planet. The world of Dune though extends far past the screen here as you are enveloped with a powerful and visceral soundscape. Hans Zimmer crafts a score that feels very at home in this alien locale and yet adds so much dimension to the operatic visuals we get on screen. Villeneuve unashamedly references all the greats, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apocalypse Now, and Lawrence of Arabia in fresh and interesting ways. All these things together make Dune required viewing in an IMAX theatre.
For a film of this visual magnitude the story is quite simplistic and that is actually a compliment. There is an almost mythical quality to the purity of this hero’s journey that parallels the ones we have seen so many times. It evokes the large sweeping epics of works like Homer’s Odyssey or Beowulf. I actually found the sparse story here to be an asset to the film. With that being said, Dune is an incomplete story by design and that left the ending feeling abrupt and inconclusive to me. Dune: Part One is likely a film that will be judged retroactively based on its sequel as the two are inextricably connected. I can see my experience with Part Two both enriching or diminishing this film for me depending on the result.
There is rightfully loads of praise going around for Dune, from the art direction, production design, performances, score, and much more. One thing I don’t see getting much attention is the bravery to make the film in the first place. Warner Bros and Legendary deserve so much credit here.
In recent memory, the large studio system has been wielding intellectual property like a weapon, leveraging installed fanbases from preexisting stories in order to minimize financial risks. While Dune is most definitely a preexisting property with a fanbase of its own, it differentiates itself in its priorities and execution. Dune is a giant investment at 165 million dollars, based on a dense science fiction book from the 1960’s, being helmed by a meditative director, whose last big-budget sci-fi outing failed miserably at the box office. The last attempt at a live action adaptation of this exact book was a commercial and critical disaster that was disavowed by its own director. This was an extremely easy film to say “No” too, but they didn’t. They went against every impulse saying “the targeted demographic is too old”, or “it’s too expensive”, or “it needs a faster pace and shorter edit.”
In The Dune novels, Leto Atreides says “Fear is the mind killer”, and for over two decades big studios have predominantly operated from a place of fear, severely underinvesting in risky or original properties. While that conservative mindset has led to untold financial success, I must admit, it’s really refreshing to see a bold bet like Dune finally pay off. Only time will tell if its a welcome outlier, or the start of a trend.