The long-anticipated sci-fi/action epic had its North American premiere at New York Film Festival on October 7th. The film’s director, Denis Villeneuve, gave a brief speech and special thank you to the New York audience for being in attendance. He later was joined by the film’s composer, Academy Award winner, Hans Zimmer for a post-screening Q&A.
When the Covid pandemic first began to affect the film industry, there was a slate of big-screen film premieres hanging in the balance. There was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, Cary Joji Fukanaga’s take on the James Bond series, No Time to Die, and of course Denis Villeneuve’s, Dune which was originally set to premiere in November of 2020. It was uncertain when if at all, films would return to theatres or if we’d have to adjust to watching these major tentpole films at home on our TVs or laptops. Warner Bros., the company set to distribute the film, decided their solution to the COVID-19 pandemic would be to simultaneously release their big-screen titles in theatres and on their streaming platform HBO Max for a month, afterwards continuing with its theatrical release. Villeneuve was one of several in a sea of directors, producers, and actors who voiced their disapproval of such a move, a sentiment I understand better having seen Dune. I am in no way a theatre purist. I don’t believe every single film needs to be seen in a theatre and I’m happy film is more accessible now than it ever has been because of the Internet, but I can understand why Villeneuve wanted his masterpiece to be seen in the comforts of a theatre; with its big booming sound to compliment Zimmer’s score and the large screen that truly highlights the visuals he so meticulously worked to convey.
From its opening scene, Dune is visually stunning. Whether its the sweeping shots of the Turkish desert that served as the backdrop for the planet Arakis, the beautiful blend of earthy neutral tones with the bleak, yet striking color palette of futuristic blacks, whites, grays, or the simmering close-ups of Timothée Chalamet and Oscar Isaac’s bone structure. There is always something new for your eyes to uncover as Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser take the audience through the world of Dune. Watching the film feels like sitting in one of those early versions of virtual reality games that were at arcades, where you’re immersed in whatever adventure is happening in front of you, but are not totally oblivious to the world around you. I went into the film not having read the book from which the film is adapted or knowing anything about the film other than its casting, so I was partly insecure if I’d be able to keep up with the complexities of the story, but Villeneuve works hard at making even the most clueless audience member feel part of the action. It seemed everyone in the theatre that night was transfixed, wanting to learn more about this new world we had been brought to. It felt like when they were running for their lives, tussling in the sand, waging war, that I too had a spot in the action, and I quickly found myself just as capable of discussing the politics of the world as the fictional characters.
The other striking aspect of the film is the crushing and moving score by veteran composer Hans Zimmer. In a theatre setting, you can feel the sweeping crescendos and decrescendos of the music vibrating through your body, which only serves to heighten the drama. There were moments where I finally settled, thinking there was some respite from the action, only to hear the bumbling and brewing of what I can only describe as “bad news” music; the type of music you hear that you know signals something is about to go down. My body would be on alert again. “What’s about to happen now?” Because that is the pull Dune has on its audience. The film reiterates more than a few times the peril and unpredictability of the Arakis desert and the unforgiving nature not just of the environment, but the ancient people who inhabit it, the Fremen. Zimmer’s score, at times soothing and at times anxiety-producing, helps the drama of the world unfold so the audience is always kept on our toes. We, just like Paul and his mother Jessica as they traverse the desert, are unsure of what’s coming next, making the audience feel that much more connected to what’s happening on the screen.
Lastly, what touched me the most are the film’s stellar performances. The film stars heartthrob Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, heir to the throne of the House of Atreides, Oscar Isaac as his father, Duke Leto Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother and Isaac’s love interest, Lady Jessica, Zendaya as Chani, a young Fremen woman, and Chalamet’s love interest and also features performances from Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, and Stephen McKinley Henderson. Chalamet sheds his boy-next-door-like image and adopts a more stoic, guarded personality as he portrays a young prince with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He effortlessly sways between a curious, yet skeptical teen, eager to find his place amongst the ranks of the House of Atreides and a forceful, all-knowing messiah coming to terms with an immense power destined only for him to wield. His performance is bolstered by Rebecca Ferguson’s commanding presence on screen as Lady Jessica. She conveyed so much through her eyes that left me as an audience member intrigued and transfixed. The film also boasts excellent performances from Babs Olusanmokun and Sharon Duncan-Brewster who give a face to the Fremen, who are largely unseen throughout the film.
Dune is a film meant to be seen on the big screen. It is the action epic the world has been waiting for. It begs to be seen and heard in a way that fully lets you settle into a world whose promise is only just beginning to be explored. Don’t walk to see it, run!
Dune premieres in theatres and HBO Max on October 22nd and will remain on HBO Max for one month.