Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s widely beloved novel of the same name, Dune (2021), is a remarkable feat in blockbuster filmmaking that reaffirms why Villeneuve is one of the best working directors today. Villeneuve’s adaptation honours Herbert’s writing by matching it with visual splendour and creating an on-screen world that feels lived-in — something that hasn’t been felt on the big screen since the director’s last film, Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
There’s a reason why Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel had always been deemed unfilmable in the same way as J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Like The Lord of the Rings, Dune is comprised of a level of detail that captures the minutia of the world it creates and the characters that occupy it; whether that be through numerous internal monologues, vivid imagery through carefully selected wording, or just the fact that the ‘hero’s journey’ isn’t approached in a way that would seek to validate the protagonist’s actions.
That protagonist is the Muad’Dib, Lisan al Gaib, Kwisatz Haderach, Messiah — Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). Mentioning all of the ways in which Paul is referred to in the book and film is important because it highlights just how nuanced of a character he is. Paul is many things to many different groups and people, be it the Bene Gesserit who are a sisterhood conditioned in superhuman ways; the Fremen who are the desert people of the planet Arrakis; and to those that know him across the story like Chani (Zendaya), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), to name a few.
When it comes to the plot, two houses (House Atreides and House Harkonnen) have been feuding with each other for ages. It isn’t until the Padishah Emperor requests that Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and the rest of House Atreides move to and oversee the desert planet of Arrakis (Dune), that tensions begin to further boil between the houses as deceit and betrayal ensues. On the planet is the galactic currency known as the spice (a melange like substance) that is the source for discontent, power, and wealth, and as mentioned in the novel, “he who controls the spice controls the universe”.
Alongside all of this is Paul who has a unique destiny that will change the lives of all of those around him. Paul is viewed as a messiah of sorts that has been bred and trained by the Bene Gesserit for the purpose of leading people into a better future, though at the expense of bringing about a potentially worse future known as the jihad (or ‘war’, as the film westernizes the term).
The story itself is a rather complex one, if not for Herbert’s aforementioned approach to writing the book, then for its emphasis on ideas pertaining to feudalism, mysticism, perennial truth, and a plethora of other nuanced ideas and leanings. Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Villenueve do a good job of dissecting some of Herbert’s ideas for the screenplay, and adapting them for the screen through visual cues, motifs, and worldbuilding.
They take the heart of the story in Paul Atreides, and allow him to guide us through each given moment using visual storytelling and the affordances of the cinematic medium. In this way, for anyone that hasn’t picked up the novel, it’s relatively easy to follow the film and pick up on some of the concerns and ideas that penetrate Herbert’s telling through visual cues.
Villeneuve is a master of using visual storytelling to tell a complex story while leaving his own print on that story; It’s a large reason why Blade Runner 2049 worked so well and why Dune works just as well. The world he creates on-screen speaks for itself with its own visual language through setting, colour, visual effects, and cinematography. For instance, there is a scene involving the Sardaukar (the Padishah Emperor’s specially trained elite force) that captures the very essence of this force by using no dialogue. Rather, Villeneuve utilises framing, composition, visual effects and sound in a sequence that lasts barely a minute, but is able to depict the very ruthlessness of the Sardaukar in this short sequence. That’s just one of the many examples where Villeneuve shows and doesn’t tell — everything you need to know about this force is shown to you in this condensed form.
What Villeneuve isn’t able to do with Dune like with Blade Runner 2049, is give you a reason to care about the characters in this film. The first half of the film is paced incredibly quickly which is understandable given there is a lot of ground to cover in Herbert’s novel, however characters are what audiences latch onto for emotional support. The character of K (Ryan Gosling) in Blade Runner 2049 was multifaceted for an android, and the scale of the film never overwhelmed that connection built with him.
Some might view Villeneuve’s treatment of character as one that is reflective of Herbert’s own reluctance to provide overly accessible characters, however films need that connection otherwise you’re relying on visual bravado to take you where you need to go (which it does, but that aspect is a shortcoming nonetheless). I’d make the case that Herbert’s own novel offers characters like Gurney Halleck, Duke Leto, and even Paul to an extent, for emotional support and for connection.
That said, as with any adaptation of a novel or novels as rich in detail as Dune, Villeneuve has to sacrifice key aspects of the novel in favour of an adaptation that is worthy of a 155minute feature. Certain characters like Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) become side-lined more than others where in the book they would play a much more pivotal role in understanding Paul and the motifs that underpin the film.
Some of those motifs include the significance of water on a planet where water is like its own currency. A film like George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) did a stellar job in capturing the significance of water in a largely desolate desert setting where it is treated as a controlling tool. Villeneuve’s Dune has moments where its significance is brought to light, but it never fleshes that out in a way that would make an audience member (unless you had read the book) realise the significance of the still-suits that the characters wear, or the cannibalistic like re-purposing of a deceased persons water.
But at its core, Villeneuve’s Dune is a film that pushes what the medium can achieve at this scale and is a masterful cinematic experience that epitomizes blockbuster filmmaking. The score composed by Hans Zimmer is piercing and fitting, and makes for an enthralling soundscape (which one would hope it would be given how long he has been sitting on it for a modern Dune film); the visuals are breath-taking and unlike anything I have seen in a film before where the world feels like it exists or will exist (as though Villeneuve is his own messiah who has seen the state of the world in 10,000 years); and the cast is incredibly talented and exciting to watch (especially Stellan Skarsgard as The Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in a role that echoes the muteness of his character in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise).
For those that haven’t read the books and even those that have, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune part 1 is a breath-taking feat in filmmaking that deserves to be seen. It’s a film that places emphasis on worldbuilding and scale at the expense of some characterisation, but it is an experience that is unlike any you will have this year. It would have been great to have had a trilogy greenlit in order to explore the complexities of Herbert’s novel in greater detail, however the fact that there will be a sequel at all is a win for fans of the book, Villeneuve, and cinema.
Dune is now streaming on HBO Max until the 22nd of November and in Australian cinemas next month