Review: 'Dune' a Mesmerizing, Absorbing Spectacle

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday December 3, 2021

Timothee Chamalet in 'Dune'
Timothee Chamalet in 'Dune'  (Source:Warner Bros.)

While set in the future or with advanced technology, sci-fi is an inherently political genre examining humanity, deconstructing current societal structures, and imagining dystopian and equitable societies. As a child, I loved David Lynch's ostentatiously weird 1984 adaptation of "Dune." Reading Frank Herbert's novel drew me in with its dense and complex world-building and scrutiny of power dynamics.

I loved Denis Villeneuve's epic sci-fi film adaptation of "Dune," a hypnotic and riveting auditory and visual spectacle. Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth, the film stars an ensemble cast of Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Stellan Skarsgård, and Javier Bardem. I'm a fan of Villeneuve's films ("Arrival," "Sicario," "Blade Runner: 2049"), which are always visually arresting and emotionally resonant.

With a fantastic cast, the film features gorgeous cinematography, production design, visual effects, and score. Rather than being bogged down by cumbersome exposition, it hints at a rich mythology and epic world-building. Exuding an evocative atmosphere and mystical, dreamy ambiance, the ambitious film explores political machinations, colonialism, oppression, and power dynamics.

Set in the far future — the year 10,191 — "Dune" features dynastic families (Houses Atreides, Harkonnen, and Corrino) and groups vying for political control. A bildungsroman centered around protagonist Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalemt), the film follows he and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), to the desert planet Arrakis, which is valued for its commodity, the spice: A life-giving "hallucinogen" that enables prescience and interstellar travel. Assigned to harvest the spice, Leto — who cares more about people's well-being than wealth — doesn't want to colonize Arrakis; rather, he wants to form an alliance with the Indigenous people, the Fremen. But the Atreides find treachery and destiny await.

The familiar "Dune" elements are here: The Fremens' piercing blue eyes (due to the spice-filled air); the Fremen-built stillsuit, which "cools the body and recycles the body's sweat for drinking water"; mentats (human computers); the poisoned assassination tooth; and the sandworms, which look both menacing and majestic. Much of "Dune's color scheme exists in black and gray, with shadows and fog, juxtaposed by the warm, golden light of Arrakis and glittery spice in the air. At times, the sound design incorporates rhythmic thumping, echoing the vibrations from the thumper device that lures the sandworms. Hans Zimmer's excellent score often involves intense chanting and women's ululation, similar to "Xena: Warrior Princess" and Zimmer's own "Gladiator" score.

Timothée Chalamet portrays Paul as loyal to those whom he cares about, and, at times confident bordering on arrogant, befitting someone raised with enormous privilege. Other times, he's weighed down beyond his young years with the burden of responsibility and knowledge from his prophetic dreams — of Arrakis and Chani (Zendaya) — which weave throughout the film. Jessica defiantly trains Paul in the ways of the all-women Bene Gesserit order (despite such training for men being forbidden), while Duncan (Jason Momoa, imbuing the character with charisma and breezy levity) and Gurney (Josh Brolin) train Paul in combat. Jessica trains Paul to use "the voice," a skill allowing someone to command another person to do what they wish.

"Dune" features powerful, self-reliant women, including Jessica, Chani, and Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster, originally a man but cast as a woman here). The Bene Gesserit strategize, manipulate, and orchestrate politics. Rebecca Ferguson, outstanding and captivating in every role, portrays my favorite character: The intriguing and powerful Jessica. She has precognitive visions and is a fierce warrior. She teaches and advises Paul. She imbues the dynamic character with complexity and torment, worrying about Paul and Leto, as she empathically feels their pain.

Sci-Fi Epic "Dune" a Mesmerizing and Absorbing Spectacle

The Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) questions Paul about his dreams. She also tests him with the infamous "hand in the box," which causes him to feel tremendous pain. If he removes his hand, she will stab him with the "gom jabbar," a poisoned needle. Paul assumes the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother worries of his burgeoning powers because of the position of his father, Duke Leto; instead, the Reverend Mother talks of his powerful mother, declaring he has "more than one birthright."

It's an interesting reversal for a story (particularly one written in the 1960s) to revere women over men. Yet, the narrative reifies the cishet gender binary — excluding trans people and non-binary people — as the Reverend Mother tells Jessica she was supposed to only give birth to daughters, not a son (the Bene Gesserit possess full control over their bodies, including their fertility). Despite their women-centric focus, the Bene Gesserit still strive for a male messiah: The Kwisatz Haderach.

Unfortunately, "Dune" has no queer characters at all in the film. Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) is a gay man in the novel and Lynch's 1984 film. He's a rapist and a sadistic villain. This trope of a villainous predatory gay man is wildly problematic, especially considering that he's the only queer character in the story. Thankfully, Villeneuve's film removes this trope. But it also erases any queer identities.

It's clear that Villeneuve wants to reframe "Dune" to focus on colonialism and the oppression of Indigenous people. Chani narrates the film's opening about the "beauty" of Arrakis and the brutal colonialism of the vicious Harkonnens: "They ravage our lands before our eyes. Their cruelty is all I've ever known." Arrakis's spice in the novel was an allegory for oil in Arab countries. I love how the film opens with Chani's perspective, diverging from the Emperor's daughter, Princess Irulan's, narration and epigraphs in the 1984 David Lynch film and the novel, respectively.

"Dune" navigates a coming-of-age story, white savior narrative, messiah trope, colonization, and Indigenous people fighting for their autonomy. As much as I love it, I can't help but wonder what the story would look with a different protagonist. If part two is greenlit (which it's intended to be, as "Dune" only tells half of the novel's story), I hope it further centers the Fremen and critiques the white savior narrative and dismantles it. There's an importance placed on the power to imagine a different world, a hopefully better world free from tyranny.

"Dune" is a mesmerizing and absorbing spectacle, that I can't wait to watch again.

"Dune" debuts early on Digital December 3 and 4K, Blu-ray and DVD on January 11, 2022