2021 (January 11, 2022)
Legendary Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: B-
In the history of science fiction, there have been a number of high-concept works that cut through the trappings of genre pulp (robots, laser guns, aliens) to describe timeless stories of the human condition. Among the best are Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. As good as any of them, however, is Frank Herbert’s Dune. Set many thousands of years in the future, it’s a multi-layered tale of two great royal houses (the Atreides and Harkonnen) which are engaged in a struggle to control the most valuable planet in the universe… Dune (also known as Arrakis), and its all-important export, the spice melange that makes space travel, longer life, and prescience possible. The rightful heir to the planet, young Paul Atreides, is the product of an ancient genetic breeding program. His is more than a political struggle though; before the story is fully told, Paul will become Muad’Dib—a prophet who will help the native people of Arrakis to reclaim their world, and help the human race to reclaim its identity. Richly steeped in political, cultural, and ecological detail, with no small measure of commentary on religion, gender dynamics, and colonialism, Dune essentially predicted the global geo-politics of the next half century, yet remains as relevant today as ever. Herbert’s novel won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction literature and inspired multiple sequels. It remains one of the most highly-regarded novels of all time.
For years, filmmakers struggled to bring Herbert’s work to the big screen, with Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott each mounting failed attempts (the former famously chronicled in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune). In 1984, director David Lynch—fresh from the success of The Elephant Man—delivered his version (reviewed here) with decidedly mixed results. Lynch’s film plays out like a CliffsNotes version of a Dune comic book, with important concepts from the novel altered or omitted entirely to fit the 137-minute running time. The result is an uneven mix of slow-paced melodrama, grotesque imagery, lengthy voiceover exposition, and scenes of characters talking or dreaming about future events and plans. In December 2000, the Sci-Fi Channel debuted its own three-night TV miniseries adaptation (reviewed here) directed by John Harrison (Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) with cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now). The lavish 266-minute production finally did justice to the scope of Herbert’s novel and garnered the channel’s highest ratings ever to that point. But due to budget limitations it was shot entirely on soundstages using massive “translight” backgrounds, lending the effort a staged theatrical quality, and the low-resolution visual effects of the day quickly grew dated. Thus it was not until Legendary obtained the film rights to Herbert’s novel in 2016—and signed filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner: 2049) to direct—that a truly worthy cinematic adaptation of Dune finally became possibile.
Fortunately, a worthy cinematic adaptation is exactly what Villeneuve has delivered. His Dune is magnificent, with the scope, vision, and ambition to fully realize the kind of imagery that readers of the novel first imagined over four decades ago. For starters, Villeneuve wisely choose to split the novel into two separate films to give the story room to breathe, and his life-long familiarity with its subtleties is apparent in every frame. The sheer visual scale here is otherworldly, with exquisite live action cinematography by Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) that’s enhanced by an approach to shooting exteriors (whether in Budapest’s Origo Studios or Jordan’s expansive Wadi Rum) in natural outdoor lighting, with “sandscreens” replacing traditional blue and greenscreens for inserting visual effects. Villeneuve and his team constructed as much of the sets as possible to keep the actors immersed in real environments. When VFX do appear, they’re used to add unearthly dimension to the frame, yet they blend with the live action seamlessly. A slab Brutalist design ethic that emphasizes the natural and mechanical, rather than the technological, further enhances the realism. It’s so rare that a film described as epic truly deserves that label, but Villeneuve’s work stands with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia in that regard.
Of course, none of this would matter if the cast failed to deliver credible performances, so Villeneuve selected a terrific ensemble of actors and gave them each real emotional connection to their characters, as well as grounding in the story universe. Despite his relatively short list of credits, young Timothée Chalamet lends genuine believability to the role of Paul by embodying vulnerability, naiveté, and a kind of cosmopolitan worldliness all at once. Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson drive the film early on as Duke Leto and the Lady Jessica, with Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Chang Chen supporting them beautifully in the roles of Gurney, Duncan, Thufir, and Yueh, respectively. (In fact, Momoa has never been better on film than he is here.) Stellan Skarsgård is appropriately menacing as the Baron, with Dave Bautista exuding just the right amount of rage as Rabban. And Javier Bardem is absolutely perfect as the hard-nosed Stilgar. But for all the testosterone in evidence on screen, it’s the female characters that motivate the emotional narrative, starting with Jessica and Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother, and continuing to Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet-Kynes (a well drawn gender-swapped role) and of course Zendaya’s Chani, the Fremen girl who haunts Paul’s dreams. Chani gets little screen time here, yet her presence looms large. To a greater degree than any other film in recent memory, each of Villeneuve’s choices—no matter how insignificant they might seem—is carefully calibrated to enhance the emotional, visual, and tonal effect he’s trying to achieve. His Dune becomes much more than simply the sum of its parts as a result, thus proving that Herbert’s work is in good hands.
Dune was captured digitally in the ARRIRAW codec (at 4.5K) using Arri Alexa LF IMAX and Mini LF IMAX cameras, with Panavision H-Series and Ultra Vista lenses. The footage was then scanned out to 35 mm dupe stock, and that film was itself scanned back to digital in native 4K—it’s those new digital files that were then used for editing and post production. Per Fraser, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter (linked here): “When we projected film, it just didn’t give us the feeling that we were after. It felt, as Denis put it, a little bit nostalgic, like we were watching something that has happened in the past.” Digital felt more contemporary, “but it was a little too crisp.” Scanning the digitally-captured image out to film and then back to digital “gave us the feeling we had been picturing—a certain texture that’s painterly but feels timeless.” From a technical standpoint, this process retains the clarity and clean detailing of digital, yet exhibits the benefits of film too, including photochemical grain, interlayer halation, and density breathing. The film was ultimately completed as a 4K Digital Intermediate at the 2.39:1 scope aspect ratio for its wide theatrical release (though some scenes were also finished at 1.43 and 1.90 for IMAX Laser and IMAX Xenon digital exhibition). Note that Warner’s new 4K Ultra HD presentation is framed exclusively at 2.39:1.
The resulting image is very near to reference quality. Overall resolution is outstanding, with clean fine detailing that’s visible in rock, sand, skin, and stone. Photochemical grain is light and organic. The image has been graded for high dynamic range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available) and that range is broad indeed. Blacks are deeply dark, yet retain an abundance of detail—the Atreides uniforms are evidence of this, the fine wool texturing of their dark fabric readily apparent. A standout scene in terms of shadow detail is Paul’s meeting with the Reverend Mother, which takes place in a dimly-lit chamber amid a myriad of shades of dark gray and black. (Those with Dolby Vision capable displays will be glad to have them here.) Yet highlights are truly bold, lending an oppressive glare to desert skies and a lustrous sheen to costume ornamentation and the sandworm mural in the Arrakeen palace. Warner’s 4K disc includes only the movie, so the A/V bitrate remains high at all times. One could certainly wish that the frame opened up to 1.78 for the IMAX sequences, but the film was intended for 2.39 and looks marvelous in that ratio. Comparing this image to the 4K Digital version (available on Apple TV and elsewhere) reveals no contest—this 4K disc is hands down the best way to watch Dune at home.
The 4K disc also features an absolutely stunning English Dolby Atmos mix, not only one of the best mixes in some time, but quite possibly one of the best all time on this format (and Oscar-worthy in every respect). As is the case with the visuals, the soundstage here is massive, with thunderous bass during battle sequences and incredible dynamics. There’s nearly constant atmospherics from all around and from the height channels above, though some are incredibly subtle—the whisper of wind, for example, or the lack of sound in the film’s vast deserts, which still has a unique sonic quality of its own. Dialogue is crystal clear, and this becomes critical when Jessica, Paul, and the Reverend Mother employ the “Voice,” which announces itself via deep, rumbling bass before you actually hear the words on delay. Voices are important too within Paul’s dreams and visions, seeming to represent the ancient ancestors of humanity speaking across deep time. What’s remarkable here is that the soundscapes have a completely natural authenticity, as if they were recorded on location by a documentary crew. The desert sounds are real, some of them recorded by burying microphones deep within the sand, which seems to have a voice of its own. But there’s an exotic quality too, a kind of sonic psychadelism that fits Herbert’s universe perfectly. The ornithopters soar with a muscular heft that recalls a Black Hawk helicopter channeled through dragonfly wings. The sandworms “speak” with a kind of stuttering internal pulse that hints at Fremen thumpers, and the fact that the worms can generate such sounds explains how they’re able to liquify the sand to move through it. Organic and mechanical rhythms are pervasive throughout the mix, some of them in-world and some added via Hans Zimmer’s magnificent score—surely one of his best to date. His orchestrations seem to employ both alien instruments and more familiar ones played in new ways, seamlessly blended with steady percussion and choral chanting. The result is a marvelously immersive sonic environment that enhances mood, character development, emotion, and action, and is a perfect match for the film’s heightened visuals. Dune is a sonic marvel, a perfect demo disc for your home theater audio system. Additional sound options include English Descriptive Audio (US and UK), German Audio Description for the Blind, German and Italian Dolby Atmos, and French, German, Italian, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, and Hindi 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles available in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, German for the Hearing Impaired, Italian for the Deaf, Castilian Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Cantonese, Korean, Latin Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Norwegian, and Swedish.
Warner’s physical 4K release is a 2-disc set that includes the film in 2160p on UHD and also 1080p HD on a separate Blu-ray (which itself features audio in English Dolby Atmos, English Descriptive Audio, and 5.1 Dolby Digital in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Hindi, Hungarian, and Polish Voice-Over, with optional subtitles in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Bulgarian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian). There are no extras on the 4K disc, but the Blu-ray includes the following special features (all in HD):
- The Royal Houses (8:12)
- Filmbooks: House Atreides (2:08)
- Filmbooks: House Harkonnen (1:51)
- Filmbooks: The Bene Gesserit (2:23)
- Filmbooks: The Fremen (2:12)
- Filmbooks: The Spice Melange (1:51)
- Inside Dune: The Training Room (5:07)
- Inside Dune: The Spice Harvester (3:12)
- Inside Dune: The Sardaukar Battle (4:04)
- Building the Ancient Future (6:26)
- My Desert, My Dune (4:50)
- Constructing the Ornithopters (5:38)
- Designing the Sandworm (5:40)
- Beware the Baron (5:00)
- Wardrobe from Another World (2:52)
- A New Soundscape (11:12)
The good news is that every bit of this content is worth watching, and a large number of different topics are covered. The bad news is that it’s mostly produced to educate the uninitiated to this world, rather than to engage longtime and well-informed fans of Dune. Still, virtually everyone you’d want to hear from is interviewed and gets a chance to comment. You get to see parts of various sets that don’t appear in the film itself, as well interesting moments behind-the-scenes. And the Filmbooks clips are clever. While not actually produced for use in the film (as they utilize clips from the film along with production artwork), they serve as quick topic explainers for newbies and the same narrator heard in the film (actually the film’s editor, Joe Walker) reads the text. The best of the longer featurettes are My Desert, My Dune (in which Villeneuve talks about his approach to the project), Constructing the Ornithopters (an entire documentary could be made on this topic alone), Designing the Sandworm (in which we learn that the goal was not to create monsters to be feared, but rather natural “gods” to be revered), Beware the Baron (a look at the extensive make-up process that transformed actor Stellan Skarsgård), and finally A New Soundscape (featuring the work of composer Hans Zimmer, editor Joe Walker, and supervising sound editors Mark Mangini and Theo Greene—this too could be the topic of a full documentary of its own). Taken as a whole, this is certainly more content that we typically get on new release movie discs these days. But one still can’t help wishing for more detailed and comprehensive content—material actually produced for Dune diehards. A feature-length documentary, deleted scenes (there are known to be many), the film’s trailers, audio commentaries with Villeneuve and Fraser, with key cast members, with the sound team—all of these would have been welcome, but none are included here. What’s more, the Blu-ray’s menu interface is a bit wonky. It starts off looking like Universal’s usual menus, with selectable featurette “windows” on the right-hand side. (This makes sense, as Studio Distribution Services is now producing discs for both Universal and Warner.) But once you work your way though the first batch of windows, the menu suddenly switches to a list of text selections in a completely different order. It’s very weird and non-intuitive. Naturally, you also get a Movies Anywhere Digital code on a paper insert in the Amaray packaging.
It should be noted that Dune (here titled Dune: Part One) is only the opening act of a much larger three-act story that will continue in sequels to follow, reportedly titled Dune: The Prophet (or Dune: Part Two) and Dune: Messiah. So this is simply the beginning. But if those sequels are of the same caliber, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune may be counted alongside Kubrick’s 2001 and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as a true masterpiece of science fiction. This is virtuoso genre filmmaking on a grand scale and at another level—the kind of cinematic experience that only comes around once in a decade and demands to be seen on the largest possible screen with the best possible sound system. It is absolutely not to be missed.
– Bill Hunt