By Emma Weidmann | Staff Writer
I think what many — if not most — will declare out of the gate is “Dune” is a visual spectacle. The score, cinematography, editing, set design and visual effects are all used masterfully to create one of the most beautiful and thrilling sci-fi universes of all time. However, does “Dune” round itself out well enough with visuals and film quality to make it worth being a best picture contender?
First and foremost, the cast was a brilliant choice on director Denis Villeneuve. A large ensemble of star-studded career actors, I mean who could go wrong? Well, by making the characters unlikable of course. The protagonist Paul Atreides, played by Timothee Chalamet, came off as stuck up and only defined by the strange visions he receives. He never felt fully fleshed out as a character to me as someone who has read the source material of the film. Of course, since this is just part one of likely two films; perhaps this was to set up the before and after of Paul’s character but he still felt very unlikeable throughout the two and a half hour film.
Another casting choice that seemed wasted in the film was Zendaya as Chani, the mysterious Fremen woman who appears to Paul in his visions of Arrakis. Hopefully she may have a larger role in the continuation of part one, but as my colleague Emma Weidmann put so accurately in her own review, she barely has any screen time in this film, yet the film’s marketing and press tours featured her heavily. She was given no time to shine, yet she is a prominent figure in the story at large.
This leads me to my main problem with the film: the pacing. For a film with almost three hours of runtime, it seems to move extraordinarily quickly. Without giving too much away, the film has so many constant changes that move the viewers through a rollercoaster of a plot. The transitions between them felt too slow to deal with the fast-changing dynamics, often leaving me either confused as to what exactly was going on or dissatisfied by the pacing of what did just occur.
On the other hand, as I mentioned previously, the film’s audial and visual qualities are what almost saves it. The visual effects have to be mentioned first, as the technology, vehicles and overall look of this space opera that is “Dune” were amazingly created. Each piece of tech looked and felt like it could be very much real, and it appeared so accurate to the novel, in my opinion, I felt drawn in by each newly introduced effect.
The score of the film, provided by legendary composer Hans Zimmer, also is beautifully created in the set in the film. Each piece of music throughout the film never felt like filler or just background noise, but set truly set the tone for each scene. A mysterious and hopeful few notes play as the characters look out over Arrakis’s vast desert. A guttural, dark throaty sound plays over a villain’s traitorous plan, each piece of music and sound was built specifically for each part of the film, and Zimmer once again has created a soundtrack that I want my life to be scored off of.
Finally, the cinematography, editing and set design all work so well in this film to create an atmosphere of mystery, change and conflict. Each piece of the set, whether it is the seaside fortress of Caladan or the dunned city of Arrakeen, was one in a million and created a sense of protection in the face of constant violent upheaval, yet a claustrophobic feeling in the audience for the character’s political entrapment. The camerawork is sweeping and gorgeous, following starships and battles so smoothly like the camera was an omnipresent POV that always knew where to look to have audiences gasping. The editing of the film always felt necessary where it was placed, and there was never a cut, wipe or cross-dissolve that didn’t feel earned, despite the poor pacing of the scenes the editing transitioned between.
Ultimately, I have to say “Dune” is a mixed bag. I think audiences wanted to get over the failure of David Lynch’s “Dune” adaptation in 1984, and by comparison the film is seen as a masterpiece. It does have major shortcomings that I hope the second part can fix or improve on. Overall, I would say that just judging on the visual and audible aspects of “Dune,” it could be an Oscar contender, but I do not see it worthy of being best picture in terms of overall quality.
Where to watch “Dune”: HBO MAX