'Dune' Nearly Lives Up to the Grandeur of the Novel Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista
Published Oct 20, 2021Dune is finally here. Another film adaptation means another chance for a filmmaker to try and capture all of the complexities of the novel on the big screen. Frank Herbert's 1965 sci-fi epic has been held in high regard for its compelling narrative and the array of themes the novel explores, including politics, environmentalism and colonization, to name a few. David Lynch attempted his version of Dune in 1984, but it was a critical and commercial bomb. Two and a half hours was simply not enough time to capture the entire narrative without omitting key scenes and information. Now in 2021, it's Denis Villeneuve taking on the ambitious material, and he does so relatively well, considering all of the trappings that come with the behemoth that is Dune.
Dune (the title card reads Dune Part One) takes place in the distant future, where the governing body of the universe has appointed Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), leader of House Atreides, to take over control of planet Arrakis (also known as Dune). Arrakis is so important because it is the only planet that contains "spice," the most valuable substance in the universe because it expands consciousness, extends life and enhances space travel. But Arrakis also presents many dangers, like the climate, the sandworms who roam the deserts, and the native Fremen, about whom little is known.
The film focuses on Leto's son, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), who, having been born to his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) the Bene Gesserit (a sisterhood known for their superhuman and mind-bending powers), is having visions and is apprehensive about their move from their home planet of Caladan. Everyone in House Atreides believe the Harkonnens, the previous occupants of Arrakis and longtime enemies of House Atreides, are plotting for their failure. Despite the odds, the Duke and Paul have some optimism that, in forming an alliance with the Fremen and understanding their ways of living, they can transform Arrakis into a thriving planet.
Keeping the synopsis brief is difficult, because the world built in Frank Herbert's novel is so detailed. Despite those complexities, Villeneuve does a good job at introducing elements of that universe without overwhelming the audience with information. Concepts from the novel are introduced but aren't belaboured. Villeneuve is mindful of his focus, and instead uses the narrative and other cues to provide further context to the worlds he has built.
And the worlds Villeneuve have built are absolutely astonishing. The scale of this film is absolutely massive, but the detail in the design of each planet is very apparent. With so many different locations, every environment is unique, and, as a result, there's a barrage of beautiful landscapes that set the tone while also existing as the backdrop for this story. The rocky cliffs and green-blue waters of Caladan present a stark contrast to the bright white sands of the Arrakis deserts and emphasize the dichotomy between the states of the two planets.
Those environmental differences also play into the many themes of Dune, and one that Villeneuve prioritizes exploring. In the first few shots of the film, Villeneuve presents an image of the spice existing within the desert, being blown along by a gentle wind. He then interrupts the peaceful image with a shot of a spice harvester loudly and aggressively digging into the sand as it extracts the precious resource. The two shots are jarring when seen in succession, but emphasize the source material's concerns with depleting natural resources and not looking for more efficient alternatives.
In that same opening montage, Chani (played by Zendaya), one of the Fremen natives, details the hardship the Fremen have experienced at the hands of the Imperium and the rulers who have come to mine the spice over the years. The Harkonnens treated the Fremen like savages, and surely the next rulers will follow suit — a sentiment that reflects the horrors, betrayal and strife that's an inherent part of colonialism.
Villeneuve conveys the importance of those themes early on, setting the tone for the film — but he's unable to explore them much deeper due to the busy narrative. There is a lot of story to tell, most of which follows Paul and Lady Jessica, and the story itself is intriguing. Villeneuve works at a quick pace to ensure he hits all of the necessary plot points without having the film drag. Since there is so much story to tell, there aren't many opportunities to explore those previously mentioned themes in great depth. There are instances when they resurface, but for the most part, the focus remains on Paul and Lady Jessica as they uncover more about each other, and what lies ahead for Paul specifically.
Those unfamiliar with Dune may be discouraged by how the film plays out. The film was written with the intention that a Part Two would follow, meaning the ending of the film is open-ended rather than satisfying. But Dune is the type of material that needs that time to grow and develop, a process that not all viewers may have patience for.
Despite this, Dune is still an entertaining watch, with visuals that captivate throughout the film. Even though the film may have benefitted from further exploration of those themes, they are still peppered in, here and there. And with Villeneuve adapting such a highly regarded piece of literature, a flawless execution was unlikely. But the result was still worth the wait. (Warner Bros.)