REVIEW: "DUNE" ON HBO MAX (AND IN THEATERS!)
Movies like "Dune" are not for everybody. For every viewer who loves getting lost in a dense, detail-filled world of lore, there's someone else who doesn't care what all the places and weapons and vehicles are called and just wants everyone to get to the point. I feel like reviews and reactions to these kinds of films -- stuff like "Game of Thrones" or "The Lord of the Rings" movies or Apple's "Foundation" series -- always assume there's some perfect ideal midpoint balance, where the creators work in just enough backstory to satisfy the world-building fans but pack in enough incident and character beats and momentum to hold the attention of less arcana-minded viewers. I'm not sure this is actually true. I kind of feel like, on some level, you're either in or you're out when it comes to epic 2.5-hour plus fantasy films, and in many ways, this will determine your patience for Denis Villeneuve's latest.
This is also what makes any attempt at plot summary an exercise in futility. "Dune" is too big to sum up for you here. Basically, think "Game of Thrones" in space. Powerful dynasties -- some affiliated with mystic or supernatural powers, all with huge armies at their disposal -- are locked in a rivalry over access to an extremely valuable natural resource that's only available on a single, harsh desert planet.
As with his "Blade Runner" sequel, the much-loved French-Canadian filmmaker has used cutting-edge visual effects and a seemingly unlimited Warner Bros. budget to bring an expansive vision of the future to vivid life on screen, and once more, he's focused largely on spectacle over all else. I've read some reviews implying that the film is cold or devoid of emotion, and I don't necessarily think this is true. Several actors, particularly Rebecca Ferguson and Jason Momoa, are giving stand-out performances, and I think Villeneuve and fellow screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth did a generally good job of investing some of Frank Herbert's more stoic, stentorian figures with recognizable hints of humanity.
Still, these aren't the standout moments in "Dune," or the elements that I think are likely to make it a modern sci-fi classic. On some level, it could almost be dialogue-free. It's a grim and prescient vision from the 1950s of humans adrift in an entirely industrialized and imperialist future, one that's no longer centered on humans at all, but sacrifices all else on the altar of productivity and commerce. Ant-like humans crawl around at the feet of their massive machines and brutalist architecture, lost in a tangle of fumes and equipment. Systems, processes, organizations, guilds, prophecies and armies have come to replace individuals at society's center; even the Emperor is a mere cog in the universe's vast and intricate machine. Villeneuve consistently skirts opportunities to make anything in the film pretty; even Calladan, the ocean-filled and Earth-like world that's home to the Atreides family at the beginning of the film, is here rendered bleak and gray. It's beautiful in a way, but still uninviting.
Pure spectacle has a bad reputation. The critique has been used for years as a way to dismiss popcorn movies, action films and special effects showcases; they're just visuals with no purpose or soul. And sure, a lot of movies that are just about explosions or shootouts are disposable. But taking in a massive, overwhelming visual spectacle, and allowing it to immerse you in a fictional world, is not some kind of lesser entertainment. That's what opera was largely about as well, and people get dressed up all fancy to go see those. Whether or not you feel deeply moved by Paul Atreides' revelations about his destiny, or find the conflicts within Lady Jessica personally relatable, there's something genuinely stirring and meaningful about being transported to another reality for a few hours.
Where to Watch: Theaters or HBO Max
Running time: 155 minutes