Film Review – Dune
The history of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune being adapted to the big screen has had its fair share of ups and downs. Alejandro Jodorowsky made an attempt only for the project to fall apart. David Lynch released his version in 1984 to critical and financial disappointment. There were television adaptations, but we don’t hear much of them nowadays. The talk revolved around the notion that Herbert’s sci-fi epic – with its expansive world building, multiple languages, and dense mythology – was simply too big to be condensed into a feature film.
But like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, when technology can match an artistic vision, anything is possible. And that brings us to Denis Villeneuve. In a decade’s time, Villeneuve has risen to become a master director – one of the best working today. His latest is an epic of awe-inspiring magnitude. With co-writers Jon Spaights and Eric Roth, this translation of Dune (2021) covers the first half of the novel – with the fate of the second resting on how well it is received. Everything about the film is enormous. From the intergalactic spaceships and vast landscapes, there is very little that doesn’t exude immense scope and scale. Villeneuve took the momentum he built from Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and has made his biggest film to date.
The novel was released in 1965 and became a benchmark not only in the sci-fi genre, but in modern storytelling. It took Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” and set it within a future world of politics, imperialism, religion, and war. Those that see it will quickly notice the seeds that gave birth to Star Wars (1977) and Avatar (2009) to name a few. In a way, the narrative is almost too familiar. Under the impressive aesthetics lies a story that we recognize all too well, which is strange to say. It’s as though Dune has fallen victim of the very properties it helped inspire.
But my goodness, what a canvas Villeneuve has laid out. If anything, the costuming, set design, and art direction are a wonder to behold. The desert planet of Arrakis, with its rolling hills stretching into the horizon, will call to mind Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Greig Fraser’s cinematography places characters in the middle of caverns, buildings, and temples like specs on a football field. Hans Zimmer‘s pulse-pounding score rumbles with authority. Everything has a dusty, lived-in aesthetic. There is a balance between the new and the old worlds. Characters wear heavy suits wrapped in raggedy clothes. They holster high tech blasters and protect themselves with an invisible force field, yet still carry blades and daggers. The behavior amongst the high born and their subjects come right out of the kingdoms of medieval times.
In the middle of all this is our protagonist, Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet. Chalamet exudes a youthful spirit with deep conflicting emotions. Paul is designed as the prototypical hero, whose fate is almost predestined. He is brought to Arrakis by his father, the Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Their people have been assigned as stewards for the planet to mine the precious “spice” out of the sand. We learn that spice is a commodity crucial for survival and is only found on Arrakis, which makes its harvesting an imperative political issue. Other groups, such as the Harkonnen – led by the villainous Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) – and the Fremen (natives of Arrakis) all have interest in controlling the planet.
It’s clear that Villeneuve holds the source material in high regard, as he dedicates a large amount of runtime establishing the history of Arrakis, organizing the dynamic between the warring factions, and telling a compelling story. He nearly becomes overburdened by the juggling act. One of the major themes involves Paul being “The One,” a messiah-like figure whose power will bring peace to the universe. Does this sound familiar? While Paul is the central figure, his development feels stunted. We get many scenes of him having visions of what may or may not come, but these moments are fleeting. He sees a mysterious woman named Chani (Zendaya), but whatever connection they might have is left unresolved. His most earnest relationship is with the warrior Duncan (Jason Momoa). The brief scenes they share display a big brother/little brother honesty. Hopefully in the second installment (if it comes) the writing and direction will build Paul as more of a unique individual as opposed to a type walking down a well-traveled path.
Even with the main character following a classical arc, it is hard to argue against a film that feels so alive. Every section of the screen is utilized to full effect. When we encounter the infamous sandworms, their appearance is one of massive spectacle. The surface of the sand falls away like a sinkhole the size of a small town, showing off the worm as a giant alien behemoth. When spacecraft crash against the ground or explode in the air, there is a heft and dimension that makes it appear tangible. These images evoke not only the enormity of Herbert’s imagination but the ambition and craftsmanship that translated it into cinematic form.
When I first saw Prisoners (2013), I quickly realized that Denis Villeneuve was a director of note. With each subsequent work, my admiration for his style only deepened. Dune might be the first time that I was not immediately won over. Behind the sleek visuals and special effects lies a character story that we’ve seen plenty of times before. I loved looking at the film, but I didn’t have as much fun thinking about it. Maybe my minor issues are due to this being the first half of a larger story. Perhaps if the second part is made, my view of this will change. Until then, this will remain a beautifully rendered painting left incomplete.