Dune and the magic of cinema

I love science fiction. I was a huge “Star Wars” fan growing up and my love for the franchise is what got me into the complexities and wonders of the genre. I grew up daydreaming about intergalactic space battles, warring factions vying for planetary control, and the expansive possibilities of what humanity in the future could look like. Would we become a utopia that finds solutions for many of society’s problems, or would we fall victim to our own doings and spiral downwards to destruction?

The possibilities and answers to these questions sometimes made me feel uneasy, but I always looked upwards to the stars and pondered about our place in the universe beyond our home planet. It brought me comfort knowing that there is so much more humans haven’t discovered yet, and it’s because of that comfort that I found intrigue and solace in the universe that makes up director Denis Villeneuve’s on-screen adaptation of “Dune.”

“Dune” is based on the book that was published in 1965 by Frank Herbert. It follows the story of a young boy named Paul Atreides and his journey to overthrow those that sought to take down his family on the planet of Arrakis: home to the most precious resource in the universe called Spice. 

One thing to know about this film is that it only covers the first half of the novel, as noted by its on-screen title, “Dune: Part One.” The book has been known to be notoriously difficult to adapt due to its dense story and complex themes, but that hasn’t stopped Villeneuve from trying to give the rich story the cinematic treatment it’s always deserved.

As a fan of both Villeneuve’s work and Herbert’s book franchise, I was more than excited to see how things were going to be brought to the big screen. I had read the book twice in preparation for the movie, envisioning how certain scenes were going to be and how faithful it would be to the book. After the film was delayed three times because of the pandemic and months of waiting, I wasn’t disappointed.

“Dune” is an experience that needs to be seen on the biggest screen with the loudest sound system you can find. I saw the film in IMAX for my first viewing, and I was captivated by the sheer scale and beauty of this fictional universe. From the verdant wetlands of Paul’s homeworld of Caladan to the arid deserts of Arrakis, I was mesmerized by how immersive this film was that my eyes never left the screen throughout its two and a half-hour runtime.

One of the most prominent things to note is how cleverly the film builds its world. Sci-fi properties with dense universes tend to run the risk of dumping exposition to the audience without much nuance, which can feel like a drag. The story drip-feeds bits of info without making the audience confused or bored with its less action-oriented elements like the political intrigue and plotting. But even if you don’t care about those elements, what lies deeply baked into this story is one of epic proportions with an intimate focus on Paul and the struggles he faces.

The film’s soundtrack, composed by Hans Zimmer, is what really brings this film to life in many aspects. Unlike other sci-fi films with orchestral brass and string sounds, Zimmer opts for a more alien, otherworldly soundscape that makes Arrakis genuinely feel like a hostile and dangerous world. There are numerous moments that would otherwise feel devoid of emotion and impact if not for Zimmer’s score with his emphasis on female chanting and guttural sounds throughout the film.

The cast of “Dune” is no short of talent with many of its star-studded actors like Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, and Jason Momoa, among others. The film’s lead, Timothée Chalamet, caught my attention when I first heard he was casted as Paul Atreides, as I was interested to see how he would portray the character after seeing his performance in “Call Me By Your Name” and “The King,” among other works. Chalamet does extremely well to portray the nuances and emotional subtleties of a troubled young man with the weight of the universe on his shoulders. However, I think it’s his dynamic with Rebecca Ferguson’s performance as Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, that maintained the emotional core of the story and brought it to another level. The way she is able to portray the love of a concerned parent, the assertiveness of a teacher, and the fearlessness of a fighter is something that had me captivated every time I saw both of them on-screen together. 

There are a couple things, however, that I thought could’ve been executed better or elaborated upon especially having read the book. Some characters’ subplots and their amount of time that was present in the novel is noticeably simplified or removed entirely. Without revealing too much, there is a moment in which a character reveals something that explains why they are doing a certain thing, but their reveal felt shallow because it came out of nowhere and had no build-up, unlike in the book.

The only other thing I had a problem with was the film’s runtime. In my opinion, I think it should’ve been longer to allow for that extra time for certain moments and characters to be fleshed out more. Because this film only covers the first half of the original story, some may be quick to judge that it is unfinished. However, I think the film’s stopping point works well to bridge into what’s coming next.

“Dune” is one of those films that come once every few years that is equal parts blockbuster and art house film. While based on a 56-year-old novel and technically the set-up to an even bigger story, Villeneuve and his team managed to create a movie that not only stays faithful to the source material, but tells a story about humanity that is more relevant than ever with the framing of its themes such as the exploitation of the environment and our ability as humans to adapt to new circumstances.

There is a quote in the book that I remembered after hearing it in the film: ‘The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.’ My experience with “Dune” reminded me why we still go to the movies and how it remains as something truly special, especially after what we have gone through during the pandemic. I hadn’t gone to a theater since 2019, so seeing a movie such as this one in a stadium-sized room packed with people felt like a communal experience in the best of ways. Cinema’s existence, no matter the film, is still something that continues to bring us together even in the face of uncertainty and the daily struggles of life, and I think it’s because of that we still find joy in such experiences like I had with “Dune.”

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