Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi novel is breathtaking in its ambition and scope
Dune (2021) was a risky endeavour from both a commercial and creative standpoint. It’s an adaptation of a seminal novel which has long been considered unfilmable, with prior attempts either failing to materialize or being panned by critics and general audiences. It’s also a massively budgeted tentpole production from a director whose last foray into reviving a classic sci-fi property, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), was met with highly disappointing box office results. And, on top of all this, its release has been marred by delays thanks to the pandemic, which many also feared would hurt its earnings. In spite of all of this, Dune was a roaring success. On top of it being a massive hit, it’s also arguably the best film of its kind since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).
While I admittedly hadn’t gotten very far into the novel before checking out the film, I was nevertheless fully aware of its influence and place within the sci-fi genre. Franchises like Star Wars, Warhammer and Mobile Suit Gundam have clearly cribbed from Dune in many respects, and would either not exist or look altogether different were it not for Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic. It’s a story that blends tech-heavy futurism with mythological, spiritual and religious influences, which is an approach which would come to define many of the best and most lauded science fiction stories in numerous mediums. As such, one would think a film adaptation would be something of a no-brainer. However, as previously stated, attempts to do so have only resulted in failure. The first would have been directed by Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose version would have clocked in at 14 hours, been scored by Pink Floyd and starred Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali among others. To call it an ambitious undertaking would most certainly be an understatement, and it was ultimately abandoned for monetary reasons. The next attempt did actually materialize in the form of Dune (1984), which was helmed by yet another acclaimed surrealist director, David Lynch. However, it was heavily truncated and altered at the behest of the studio. This resulted in a 132-minute film which confounded most audiences and critics, and even Lynch himself has expressed contempt for both it and his experience working on it. There were numerous subsequent attempts to get another cinematic adaptation off the ground in the late 2000s and early 2010s, but to no avail.
To say that Dune has had a tumultuous history with regards to film adaptations would be putting it mildly, which is part of the reason why this year’s film directed by Denis Villeneuve feels like such a treat. While it only adapts the first half of the book (with a sequel adapting the second being slated for 2023), it nevertheless feels absolutely monumental. This isn’t just due to its fairly hefty 155-minute runtime, but due to the tremendous sense of scope with which its narrative and setting are imbued. Part of the reason Dune has historically been difficult to adapt can be attributed to its density. There is an immense amount of lore to keep track of, so presenting it all concisely and cohesively would undoubtedly pose a challenge. While there is admittedly quite a bit of heavy-handed exposition in the first act, the film nevertheless manages to remain wholly immersive in its worldbuilding. This is due in no small part to Villeneuve’s commitment to and mastery of mood and atmosphere, which is a huge part of why he has become something of a go-to director for more cerebral science fiction fare. There’s an immense amount of texture with which its numerous environments are imbued, from the foggy beaches of Caladan to the brutalist hellscape of Giedi Prime. And, of course, there’s Arrakis, the desert planet around which the story revolves and upon which most of it takes place. A painstaking level of attention-to-detail had clearly gone into making the planet feel as fully realized as possible. From the glistening Spice which blows in the wind and intermingles with the planet’s many, well, dunes to the beautiful architecture that seamlessly marries both Middle Eastern and European influences, there’s a palpable level of love and appreciation for this setting that makes it feel real and lived-in. Villeneuve’s direction plays a massive role in this, with his emphasis placed on particulars as well as his use of negative space, which was likewise utilized to excellent effect in Blade Runner 2049, enhancing the sense of scope and breadth of the worlds he and his team vividly brought to life.
While Dune is nothing short of visually spectacular, it is similarly impressive on a sonic level. It’s a film clearly designed to be viewed in an IMAX, as the textured soundscapes coupled with Hans Zimmer’s massive, wailing score lend it a sense of grandeur, which is entirely fitting given the fact that it’s a story about a young man who is caught up in systems that’re far larger than him and his comprehension of the universe. It similarly aids in granting the machinery and vehicles a sense of palpable weight, allowing even scenes as banal as those of spaceships landing and departing to feel awe-inspiring through their commitment to detail and verisimilitude. It’s simply awe-inspiring, and watching the various cinematographic elements coalesce to create something as painstakingly detailed and tactile as this is nothing short of spectacular.
It all works in service of a thoroughly engrossing narrative. Again, I admittedly have not finished the novel upon which the film is based, but there’s no denying the sheer amount of intricacy and care Herbert placed into his fictional universe. And it’s lovingly rendered here, with its characters perfectly embodied by their respective actors’ performances. Timothee Chalamet does come across as despondent as protagonist Paul Atreides, particularly early on, but that’s clearly a core part of his characterization, especially given the sheer amount Paul has to deal with as someone of his age. As such, there’s a clear sense of pathos and melancholy Chalamet succeeds in imbuing him with, and other characters are similarly beautifully realized. Jason Momoa brings an infectious level of laddish exuberance to the Atreides swordmaster Duncan Idaho, while the relentlessly cruel Vladimir Harkonnen is portrayed with a more than appropriate level of malice and conviction by Stellan Skarsgard. They all aid in perfectly bringing across the first chapter of what’s shaping up to be a compelling take on the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, with there being a clear sense of ominous unease surrounding Paul’s role as a messianic figure. It’s something that only becomes increasingly prevalent as the film progresses, though the film ends before this tension can culminate in anything. This cliffhanger ending may be frustrating to some, but I’m more than ready for the story to continue with Dune: Part 2 (2023), which I’m sincerely hoping will be just as if not more compelling.
Over the course of the past few years, I’ve become increasingly jaded with the state of mainstream tentpole films, especially those attached to pre-existing franchises. A lot of it has to do with oversaturation, but it even more so has to do with the vast majority of them being marred by safe, obvious creative choices and feeling as though they had been put together by a committee. What should feel enrapturing and transportive frequently feels stale and unambitious, more like product than art. Dune bucks this trend in a big way, with its execution being lent a level of vision and gravitas that make it stand out as a thoroughly engaging and artistically distinct piece of blockbuster filmmaking. It’s more than worthy of the commercial and critical acclaim it’s been receiving, and I’m hoping this success will inspire studios to take and allow more artistic risks within their larger projects.