For us at BenQ, movies like Dune, which we’ll refer to as Dune 2021 going forward, should be very easy to appraise and appreciate. Made for enjoyment on big screens and in the highest possible resolution, Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction epic is the kind of motion picture that’s often used as a demo to sell high end home cinema projectors and other displays. So, in all fairness, we really do love the way this version of Dune looks and plays, but of course, it’s not without some issues with regards to pacing, story consistency, and also availability.
Let’s make this very clear, Dune 2021 needs to be seen either in cinemas or at home on a large screen in 4K. As of this writing, the movie is only available in 4K HDR via HBO MAX. It’s also streaming worldwide on HBO GO in territories where MAX isn’t available, but the GO stream is 1080p with no HDR. This latter form doesn’t do the movie justice and robs it of much of its impact since almost all of that arrives in the form of stunning visuals. There’s also a 4K Blu-ray version coming, although Warner has yet to announce a release date. Having said that, we expect the Blu-ray to release by mid-December.
As people who make displays and love movies, we really recommend watching Dune in 4K, as we can’t overstate just how unfair the 1080p stream is to this big-budget release.
Based on Frank Herbert’s acclaimed 1965 novel, this outing of Dune is the third major production to bear the name and tell the story. There was the controversial David Lynch movie from 1984, which we like and that’s been recently made available in 4K, then a miniseries from 2000, produced by the Sci-Fi Channel, or SyFy. All three try to tell the complex story of the novel in their own way, but Dune 2021 has the disadvantage of only covering the first half of the book. And that’s with a runtime of two and a half hours. Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser certainly took their time, but fans of the book may find the movie unfulfilling because it sort of ends suddenly. And we then realize that it’ll be a while before the sequel arrives. That’s because Dune 2021 was actually made in 2019 before the pandemic, and with current circumstances, such a large production would be much more difficult to pull off.
In any case, the latest Dune did manage the charm part, becoming the most successful Dune release to date with regards to box office performance. One of the best performing “pandemic era” blockbusters, Dune indeed helped save movie theaters to some extent, which is very fitting, because the book and the movie are all about salvation.
The original Dune story as told in the novel wasn’t very science fiction-heavy, preferring to focus on characters and themes like resource exploitation, political intrigue, and culture clash. In Dune 2021, visuals take to the fore, and we get a very clearly science fiction-minded movie more in line with the recent Star Wars outings. That means lots of striking spaceship designs, explosions, and big fights. Filmed in Jordan, Abu Dhabi, and Norway, Dune 2021 looks amazing start to finish. Sure, it’s heavy on graphics and art as well as practical effects, and that means you really need to watch it in 4K the right way, because every detail matters. From the Scandinavian-looking home planet of House Atreides (the main characters) on Caladan to the arid deserts of Arrakis, the Dune planet of the title, each setting shines thanks to brilliant cinematography. There’s a lot of scene diversity here, including introspective dream sequences, echoey hallways straight out of Blade Runner 2049 (also from Denis Villeneuve), and massive melee brawls, because in the Dune universe most fighting is done with swords and energy shields. Speaking of the Dune universe, unlike the cinematography and effects, Dune 2021 is quite mixed in this department.
Primarily written by John Spaihts, Dune 2021 alternates between almost remarkable faithfulness to the original book and going completely down different paths. Some dialogue is right off the pages, some very different in tone. That’s to be expected, although we did miss vital characters and factions like the spacing guild with its navigators and of course imperial House Corrino and emperor Shaddam IV. They’re all just mentioned, whereas the previous iterations of Dune made sure to include them as they were pivotal in the book. Also missed is Princess Irulan, who is the narrator and storyteller in the original novel and also the two previous movie and TV versions.
What we do get is Timothee Chalamet as young Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides, who’s played by Oscar Isaac, and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). We won’t spoil the story or bore you with too much detail, but the crux of the plot is that House Atreides is sent by the imperial government to oversee mining operations on Arrakis, or Dune. That planet is the only known source of spice, and Dune 2021 is the first Dune version to not give spice its full name: spice melange. Dune 2021 also omits the famous “spice extends life, spice expands consciousness” mantra, only briefly telling us that spice is the most important resource in the known universe.
We do want to go on record and say that Chalamet provides the best depiction of Paul Atreides on-screen to date. With all due respect to Kyle MacLachlan and Alec Newman, Chalamet has a much better balance of angst, arrogance, compassion, and timidity. He’s very close to the Paul Atreides of the book and kudos to him for the superb acting.
Eventually, the move to Arrakis proves to be a trap, as soon the mortal enemies of House Atreides show up. Those are the once more grotesque House Harkonnen, and here Dune 2021 pays homage to the 1984 movie by David Lynch. In the book, the Harkonnens are sort of villainous but not monstrous. The Lynch movie turned them into a horror show, and Dune 2021 doesn’t stray far from that template. Again we have an oversized, floating Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), tended to by scores of bizarre servants. His main enforcer is Beast Rabban, played by Dave Bautista, who previously worked with Villeneuve in Blade Runner 2049, as did David Dastmalchian, who appears as Harkonnen advisor Piter de Vries.
Following the Harkonnen attack, the Atreides must forge ties with the local people of Arrakis, known as the Fremen. Among them are Stilgar (Javier Bardem), and Chani (Zendaya, who mostly appears in dream scenes).
Josh Brolin, Chang Chen, and Jason Momoa play House Atreides characters that in the novel and 2000 miniseries had a lot more presence, but in Dune 2021 only get limited screen time. Josh Brolin’s Gurney Halleck doesn’t even have his famous baliset! But overall, the acting is solid throughout and the combination of flashy sci fi with spots of insistent loyalty to the book makes for a very interesting approach.
This is something we have to agree with many critics on. While a good movie and a masterclass in cinematography, Dune 2021 runs for two and a half hours and then ends essentially mid-scene. That’s also understandable but is asking a lot from audiences. We can only hope that part two arrives in a reasonable timeframe and maintains the same level of epic presentation, because the biggest fights and the most outrageous scenes from the book, including lots of massive sandworms, are not in Dune 2021 and will need to be somehow accommodated in the next installment. Definitely, something to look forward to!
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