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How do you even approach something like Dune? An “unfilmable” 1965 novel by Frank Herbert that has had one film in 1984 which its director disowned, a 14-hour attempt by Alejandro Jodorowsky that was never made, and a more faithful television miniseries in 2000 that suffered from poor effects, a limited budget and being broadcast on the Sci-Fi channel. The attempts have either been too much or not enough, so how do you find that balance?
Have one of the top movie studios on the planet buy the rights, hire a top-quality director of other highly acclaimed science-fiction films and dramas, hire a massive cast of some of the most in-demand names in the world, and put up a $165 million budget. Simple stuff.
Dune is set 10,000 years in the future, where intergalactic travel is made possible by the use of a finite resource called spice melange, which can only be found and produced on the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is being plagued by dreams of Arrakis and a mysterious girl (Zendaya), just before his family, led by father Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is to travel to the desert planet and take command of its spice production under orders of the Emperor Shaddam IV. Little does the House Atreides know that the previous rulers of Arrakis, the ruthless House Harkonnen led by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgard), have set a trap for the would-be heroes, one that will force Paul and Jessica out into the treacherous landscape of Dune.
The major issue with adapting Dune is, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the detail and tone. Instead of strictly being about rigid codes of heroism and villainy, the world-building of Dune is defined by ecology, politics, and psychology. Our characters are not defined by their outward emotions but by their inward thoughts. Expression is limited and action is scarce. At best, the book is a sci-fi Game of Thrones, and at worst it feels like the needlessly verbose Senate scenes from the Star Wars prequels.
So how does this new vision of Dune succeed? The simplest answer is because of Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve is a filmmaker defined by his particular vision, the way that only he can realise this text. It’s a personal journey for him having been defined by the feeling of Herbert’s work when he was a teenager, haunted by dreams of Paul’s terrifying destiny. Because of this, Villeneuve’s Dune is laser-focused on the character of Paul Atreides. Villeneuve and his co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth reconstruct Dune as a more emotional story about the betrayal of a family and the destruction of innocence. The prophetic dreams that Paul is plagued by feel like nightmares because of how they build along with the main story, details getting more precise until we are left feeling shaken and disturbed by what is to come, just as he is. It’s a direction that feels personal and wholly unique.
Timothée Chalamet is perfectly cast as Paul. At first, he seems to young on the surface, a teenager with no awareness and eager for adventure as a concept. Behind his eyes and deep within his soul is something older, wiser, and more understanding of the true nature of the galaxy, even if he might not know it. It’s a quality that Villeneuve sees and shares with us through succinct direction, using the stoic Herbert dialogue as an obstacle covering deeper thoughts. Chalamet’s performance hints at a deeper struggle, as if every word and action is exhausting. We want to see Paul survive, to be more than a pawn in the games of powerful entities, but with every moment of growth, he takes one step back inside himself. Are his decisions his own or is everything already set into place? It’s a fascinating development of the character and I cannot wait to see how far Chalamet will go with Paul.
The rest of the cast is spot-on, embodying aspects of heroism and villainy, but also those more delicious ambiguities that make everything a little more interesting, although Zendaya’s role as the Fremen girl Chani is obviously designed to expand in the eventual sequel.
Oscar Isaac plays the Duke Leto as a character closer in perspective to Ned Stark from Game of Thrones. He is a good father to his son, supportive and loving of his wife, and kind to the people he leads, but the commands of those above him are tearing away at his soul. His honour and strong morals don’t seem to belong in this galaxy of greed, but you would follow Isaac and his beautiful beard to the gates of Hell. It’s a mighty flex to be a part of both Star Wars and its inspiration, and he mixes in both worlds with ease.
Rebecca Ferguson continues her magnificent career of playing strong yet morally complicated women. Her character, Lady Jessica, is one of the most important in Herbert’s canon, a member of the secretive and incredibly powerful Bene Gesserit, who influence all major events in the galaxy through eugenics and a mysterious power of manipulation called “the Voice”. Jessica is defiant against the secretive community that raised her because of how much she unconditionally loves her son. Ferguson masterfully navigates the complexity of Jessica’s character, establishing her as flawed yet fully functional and prepared to do whatever it takes to protect her family.
Josh Brolin as the Atreides weapons master Gurney Halleck makes a tremendous impact with only a third of the film’s runtime, the same going for Dave Bautista as the vicious Harkonnen soldier Glossu Rabban. David Dastmalchian, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Benjamin Clementine cut fantastic impressions with their handful of scenes, Chang Chen’s Dr. Yueh could have done with more of the book’s detail, and Charlotte Rampling is terrifying as the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother. I hope we get much more from Javier Bardem as Fremen leader Stilgar and Stellan Skarsgard as Baron Harkonnen in the sequel, two characters with remarkable scenes delivered by stellar actors.
There are two other characters who standout quite well amongst this wealth of talent, being Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s Dr. Liet Kynes and Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho, both making up strong sections of the film’s heart. The swordmaster and star pilot of House Atreides, Duncan feels like someone written almost exclusively for Momoa, or the actor just embodies this energetic force of nature so well that I cannot see anyone else in the role. Dr. Kynes is an Imperial ecologist and judge of the change on Arrakis, welcomed in by the Fremen community and someone who sees the potential of this planet beyond the strip-mining., Duncan-Brewster’s delivery of someone bound by unbreakable duty but who also sees life in desolation is fantastic.
The craft behind Dune is just as extraordinary. The production and costume design is as focused as Villeneuve’s direction for his actors, stripping any excess away and leaving behind a beautiful simplicity that feels more inviting and interesting as things go on. The weapons and armour feel tangible, and technology is minimalised in a logical way for this world without artificial intelligence, making for an organic production of things so close to reality.
The visual effects are absolutely seamless. The teams and artists involved used “sandscreen” chroma key processes, far more difficult and minute than blue or green screen techniques, and the results speak for themselves. Shots and sequences that feel handcrafted, pulling you closer into the experience. The gigantic sandworms that flood the surface of Arrakis are a creation you will be left awestruck by, the flying vehicles called “ornithopters” are strikingly real, and the Harkonnen ambush of the Atreides forces on Arrakis is a masterful mix of physics and fiction.
Hans Zimmer’s work is one of those dreams come true, like Villeneuve, as the composer also has a love of the book from his youth. His score is intentionally jagged, atypical and constructed as something totally different, the effect being one of his finest works as a film composer in years.
While it would have been great to have Roger Deakins on board, Grieg Fraser’s cinematography is still something marvellous. His affinity for natural lighting works hand-in-hand with the rest of the production and VFX teams, crafting these scenes of striking simplicity and washed-out frames that maximise the emptiness of the galaxy and the planet Dune.
And then there’s Joe Walker, an editor who I honestly believe is the finest working today. Marking his 4th collaboration with Villeneuve, Walker cuts together not only massive action sequences with invisible skill but when it comes to Paul’s creeping nightmares of things to come, the edits are violent, haunting, and utterly transcendent. The manipulation of time and tone was the most thrilling aspect to a film that if you haven’t guessed already I absolutely loved.
This cast and crew have made something truly special. A cinematic achievement that comes right at the beginning of a new decade, and one we need. In an age of growing popularity and saturation of art (or lack thereof) on streaming services, we need something more unique and singular. We need the next moment in blockbuster filmmaking. A creation of love and passion from everyone involved, realising the impossible and never letting you go. Dune is the kind of experience we get once in a while. This is the beginning of a cinematic achievement equivalent to The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Star Wars, a production of finely-tuned craft that delivers focused emotions and themes with maximum impact. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a dream come true, for himself, his cast, his crew, and the audience of fans and newcomers. You will feel awakened and hungry for more. The film’s opening title is Dune: Part One, and Part Two needs to come soon and continue this spectacular and singular filmmaking achievement. This is only the beginning.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac
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