Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: John Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chen Chang, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Charlotte Rampling, Zendaya
Any big sci-fi fan is at least aware of Dune. The original 1965 novel by Frank Herbert continues to be the bestselling sci-fi novel of all time, and the entire series remains as popular as ever. We’ve had the 1984 David Lynch offering as well as a television series or two based around more than just the original novel. It’s never been an easy task to undertake; the novel is incredibly intricate and dense, or so I’m told – I am yet to personally read it, despite it having been on my to-be-read list for many years now, but it’s easy to believe. Considering these factors, plus a hardy fanbase, has Villeneuve been the one to finally conquer an Everest of literature by bringing it successfully into twenty-first-century film, or is his Dune doomed?
It’s the year 10,191 and Duke Leto (Isaac) of House Atreides has been commanded by Shaddam IV, emperor of the known universe, to move from his ocean world, Caladan, to the harsh desert world of Arrakis (also known as Dune). He is to take over from House Harkkonen in mining spice, aka melange, from the planet’s sand. The spice is what powers intergalactic travel and has the ability to prolong life. Arrakis is the only planet in the known universe to contain spice. Leto takes his family, concubine Jessica (Ferguson) and their son Paul (Chalamet), to Arrakis. Jessica belongs to a sisterhood called the Bene Gesserit who possess great physical and mental powers and are commanded only to bear daughters in order to bring about the Kwisatz Haderach, a mythical ‘chosen one’; however, Jessica bore a son out of her love for Leto, a son who shares the Bene Gesserit’s power. When House Atreides is betrayed and attacked on Arrakis, it sets them on a path to find out the truth of the Kwisatz Haderach and to avenge the attack on House Atreides.
As dense as the world of Dune is, Villeneuve does not and will not spoon-feed you or hold your hand through getting to know the circumstances of the world he’s adapted. There’s plenty of exposition, but it’s your job to listen and keep up. This will work for some (and not be a problem for those familiar with the novel/Lynch movie), but certainly not for others. It’s fairly typical of Villeneuve – he does not pander to audiences at the expense of his vision for a movie, something Lynch unfortunately succumbed to when it came to the dollar-sign-visions of movie execs in the ‘80s. There’s no denying Villeneuve wasn’t perfect to adapt Dune: he has great experience in the world of sci-fi and adapting/rebooting a known story (see 2016’s Arrival and 2017’s Blade Runner reboot in particular) and he thankfully understood that it needed to be more than just one movie. So far, so good.
Production-wise, there’s a lot of fantastic things happening, including many similarities to Lynch’s movie (likely because of a well of information provided by Herbert’s novel). The costumes and sets are an eclectic mix of what we would see in 2021 as ancient, medieval, modern, and futuristic designs, creating quite the time-bending construct that takes what some may perceive as the best of history fused with the technology of the future. Acting as a well-fitted blanket over this is the soundtrack which, if you have seen Arrival (whose composer was the late and incredibly great Jóhann Jóhansson), may sound familiar. Hans Zimmer’s mixture of music and sound effects to create something that’s both familiar (the inclusion of bagpipes was a risky stroke of genius) and alien is exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to hear in a Villeneuve sci-fi. In particular, the emotional moments are elevated exponentially with Zimmer’s ability to tap into that thing in all of us that makes us react emotionally to music. Colour all of this with a beautiful palette that seamlessly represents the worlds in which the characters find themselves and stunning cinematography (with or without CGI), and we are presented with something visually and audibly bewitching.
Stepping into Kyle MacLachlan’s 1984 shoes as Paul, Chalamet was a safe choice as the movie’s lead. Sometimes a safe choice is a bad thing, but not with Chalamet – his acting range and youth works well for Paul and he gives us everything we need to invest in the character who could otherwise have easily been a moody young man (Hamlet, anyone?). He is especially good when opposite Ferguson as Paul’s mother Jessica, although it must be said that it’s Ferguson who is the movie’s scene-stealer. Jessica has and continues to put up with a lot, both from the Bene Gesserit sisterhood (her “family”, if you will), and her connection to House Atreides, and Ferguson’s own range takes us on her journey with her. Issac’s Duke Leto is pretty good; we get a good sense of Leto’s strength of character through his performance. Skarsgård is a great villain and manages not to make a farce of a character that could easily become farcical (and may have been just that in past iterations). Support-wise, Brolin, Momoa and McKinley Henderson are great as the stalwart characters of Gurney, Duncan and Thufir, respectively, supporting characters that act as strong pillars around the main Atreides family. We did not see much of Zendaya in this first part of the duology, so it would be sensible to reserve judgment on her performance until the second instalment. Overall, the casting is top notch and the performances are solid.
There’s not a lot to complain about with Dune. Yes, it’s info-heavy, so you should go in knowing that your brain needs to be in gear, but don’t let that put you off unless you’re not particularly partial to sci-fi, because this is sci-fi at it’s level best. It’s Star Wars for intellectuals. Having personally gone into this movie blind and not yet having seen the Lynch version (which I rectified the next morning for comparison’s sake), I was pleasantly surprised. I always thought Dune would be something that would bore me or that I wouldn’t be able to understand in its intricacy, but I was entertained, I was moved at times, and I was introduced to an original story and world that I wish I’d known earlier. It may not seem entirely original now, but in 1965, it WAS the original, and Villeneuve has freshened it up and brought it to the attention of a new twenty-first-century audience that will no doubt be seeking out the book(s) and waiting for Part Two with bated breath. I know I will be.