Despite Sandy Start and Trope Pitfalls, 'Dune' Could be the Next 'Star Wars'

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Average: 5 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Everything has ‘potential’ and in examining that you reveal a little bit about yourself. Seeing the ‘potential’ in something is inherently an exercise in optimism because you take what you see and understand that it could do or be better. Criticism is also a key component when it comes to discussing ‘potential’ because without a critical eye you can’t see beyond what is to see what could be. One of the final, inevitable parts of exploring ‘potential’ is developing a degree of dissatisfaction. If you completely enjoyed the product, then you have no fantasies of how it could improve, so there has to be something that didn’t live up to your standards. I know what you’re thinking, this is a long-winded way of saying that I enjoyed Dune, but while it has the potential to be the next great space opera, there is cautious, critical optimism that has to be maintained. I’ve been burned in the past.

Exploring the world of “Dune” was always going to be a daunting task. There is such a detailed history and mythology that is meticulously crafted akin to the Greek epics of old. Much like being forced to read book behemoths like “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad”, trying to get through “Dune” is an equally doom-filled pursuit. There are so many distinct groups of people, each with important family names and titles, and each with their self-serving motivations. We are told a brief history of the spice planet, including the origin story of its occupation by outside invaders, and then are thrown into the economic/political changing of the guard and what it means to the Atreides family.

Photo credit: Warner Bros

There is so much to unpack, and the filmmakers know it, opting to give us a quick catch-up now so that later they can give us more in-depth, yet brief backstories are interwoven into the story. This helps to educate without bombarding people with information, especially since many are going to be unfamiliar with the source material. The downside to this type of storytelling, as you’ll see by the end of this film, is that a lot of goodwill needs to be in place for people to have faith that the many questions and broken understanding they are left with at the end of part one will be explained and explored in part two.

That’s usually a big ask, especially for a film with such a slow first act. Even this completely polished piece of cinematic spectacle has a few red flags warning us that it might end the way of “Game of Thrones”, making us regret any or all-time put into watching it. The biggest warning flag, and my greatest concern, is that the story is going to combine my two least favorite plot devices: the modern-man-tames-the-savages trope and the white-savior/messiah trope. Director Denis Villeneuve also co-writes this film, maybe a little too faithfully for how much society has changed since the novel’s release over 50 years ago. There is something that just doesn’t sit well with me when the hero narrative is pushed on a privileged (white) man named Paul who suddenly begins to feel the call to lead a group of (mostly) people (of color) who inhabit the planet his family was just gifted by an arbitrary emperor. Aside from seeing this storyline in films that range from Pocahontas to Avatar, it just starts to come off as offensive in regards to the marginalized person’s culture. Remember, but then quickly forget, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai; that’s the kind of appropriation we should strive to avoid in our future allegorical films. Let’s not even talk about the low-key ways the female characters are used as merely a way to develop the male characters, especially when it comes to the all-woman religious order with superpowers having their messiah also end up being a man.

Photo credit: Warner Bros

A good majority of this first installment’s storytelling is spent world-building, which means there is hope that the narrative structure will head in a much less predictable or disappointing direction in the second part. I know many of us are still wary of the rollercoaster ride known as the Star Wars film series, understandably looking to slowly dip our toes back into the sci-fi saga scene. So far Dune is looking to be on par, if not slightly ahead, of where Star Wars started, greatly in part to stunning visuals and a Hans Zimmer score that proves to be the most essential “character” in that universe. Yes, all of the performances are great, especially in the scenes where Jason Momoa delivers bursts of much-needed charisma to compensate for some of the flat characterizations of the other people, but the true joy of Dune comes from the technical attention to detail.

Villeneuve brings to life a novel that has long been regarded as one of the most difficult to translate to screen, but the most awe-striking part is how effortless and natural it comes off onscreen. The landscapes each have such a high degree of details ingrained inside of every shot that at no point does anything feel computer-generated. The impressive feat is how the film is able to blend the sci-fi aspects with a more naturalistic feel that often verges on nostalgia. There are clear homages to the Hollywood epics of old, like Lawrence of Arabia, which were also long-winded, big set productions that loved to linger on establishing landscape shots just so we can get a better appreciation of the world the filmmakers have constructed for our entertainment. Just like ye olde heroic films, they too would have been made all the duller without a score worthy of this large-scale sci-fi, reminding us just how Hans Zimmer can save what could have been a beautiful, yet middling movie. Without Zimmer, it is very likely that the audience would have appreciated the visual element but have been put to sleep with how information-heavy and slow-paced the first hour or so was. The Villeneuve/Zimmer combo alone is worth the consideration of checking out this gorgeous endeavor on the big screen.

“Dune” in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on October 22nd. Featuring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth. Rated “PG-13”

Jon Espino, film and video game critic,

Film & Television Show Critic

© 2021 Jon Espino,

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