Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This might end up being my favorite blockbuster of the year. I still haven’t seen the final two Marvel Studios films and the upcoming Lana Wachowski sequel. I’m hopeful for Chloé Zhao’s Eternals (2021) but right now, this film, directed and co-written by Denis Villeneuve, is the best blockbuster of the year. If you look at the major releases from Villeneuve over the past decade, it’s clear that he puts out quality work, especially in what might be called the below-the-line categories. His major releases were all nominated for Oscars. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) was up for five Academy Awards, winning Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects. Arrival (2016) was up for eight Academy Awards, winning Best Sound Editing. I believe that this film should be up for those same categories. Both Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival were up for Best Production Design and I believe this one should be up for the same category, if not at least winning it.
Based on the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, the story here predates a lot of other films that feel just like it but obviously came out before this one. The main comparison is Star Wars (1977), and, reportedly, George Lucas took a lot of inspiration from Herbert’s novel when crafting his franchise starter. Decades later, Villeneuve takes inspiration, not simply from Lucas’ initial films in his space opera but also the more recent entries, including one of its actors.
Timothée Chalamet (Little Women and Call Me By Your Name) stars as Paul Atreides, the son of a ruler of an entire planet in the year 10191. Paul is essentially a prince and his family is practically royalty. His father isn’t a king. His father is a Duke who answers to an Emperor who presides over several planets. Paul’s father is told that he has to go to another planet, a desert planet called Arrakis, which is important because of its spice resources. The spice can be used for long health and space travel. However, Paul is having visions of a girl on Arrakis to whom he’s attracted. He’s also having visions of people’s deaths on Arrakis. He also gets other super-powers that come from his mother who is essentially a witch.
When Paul gets to Arrakis with his family, he becomes put in the center of a coup d’état. Paul’s family, and particularly his father is in charge of a large military force that has come to Arrakis to take over control of a spice mining or production industry there. However, the group of people who were in control of that planet before Paul’s family is a group called Harkonnen. After they got kicked out for Paul’s family to take over, the Harkonnen plot to return and kill Paul’s family and their entire military force.
Rebecca Ferguson (Doctor Sleep and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) co-stars as Lady Jessica, the mother to Paul. Yet, she’s not the wife to Paul’s father. She’s the concubine. Paul’s father doesn’t have a wife or any other female companion. Jessica is his partner but for some reason the two aren’t married. She does live with Paul and his father and they live as if she’s married. She’s essentially a witch. She’s a part of a religious and political group that has this mysticism about them and they practice things that invoke supernatural consequences. She does in fact have a super-power that she passed to Paul. When the coup breaks out, she simply wants to protect her son.
This film really puts a group of men in the forefront for the first half. Those men include Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, played by Oscar Isaac who is the actor from the recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and the subsequent sequels. Some of the costumes and even lines of dialogue feel like it was ripped from the Star Wars franchise. Another man put to the forefront is Jason Momoa (Aquaman and Stargate Atlantis) who plays Duncan Idaho, a weapons master and soldier working for Paul’s family and his father. Oddly, he’s akin to the character that Isaac played in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s a cool, charming and sexy hotshot. Stellan Skarsgård (Mamma Mia! and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) plays Vladmir Harkonnen, the Baron who is behind the coup and is the one trying to kill Paul’s family. Speaking of Star Wars, the Baron is like a combination of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine.
All of these allusions to Star Wars aren’t a criticism. Villeneuve takes recognizable things from that billion-dollar franchise and wields it in effective ways. Mostly, he dazzles with his camerawork and VFX. It’s probably one of the best depictions of a desert that’s ever been put to screen. Key among those things is the giant sand-worm. It is amazingly rendered and the desert through which it moves is gloriously photographed. Roger Deakins is the Oscar-winning cinematographer who has been Villeneuve’s main cinematographer. This time, Greig Fraser is the cinematographer and was nominated for Lion (2016). Ironically though, Fraser was the Director of Photography for The Mandalorian (2019), a TV series that also utilized a giant sand-worm. Fraser should be nominated at the Oscars, along with Villeneuve.
Rated PG-13 for strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 35 mins.
In theaters and on HBO Max.