Briefly put, Dune is as close to fever pitch excitement that I’ve had for a movie since the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Part of this comes from my relationship with the property. The David Lynch adaptation got me hooked on his movies and ambient music. And Frank Herbert’s novels provided me great comfort and distraction during the peak of the pandemic last year. Silly fanboy confessions aside, did you see Dune over the weekend? What did you think of the film? Let me know in the comments below.
Perhaps more than Lord of the Rings and Heart of Darkness, Dune has felt like the impossible book adaptation to slay. Originally conceived as an oddly long epic that was going to star Salvador Dali, and represent a life-changing experience (akin to LSD) for its audience; Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune is a testament to madcap vision and an interesting alternative reality for science fiction cinema. On the other hand, David Lynch’s eighties adaptation was an overexplanatory cliff notes version of Frank Herbert’s novel, which still managed to retain some of Lynch’s indelible surreal style. Visually beguiling and smartly written, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune proves to be an excellent adaptation that distils many of the themes that graced Herbert’s 1965 novel.
Roughly covering the first part of the novel (fittingly entitled Dune) the 2021 adaptation is about the Atreides family, who are tasked with mining spice on a planet called Arrakis. The substance in question provides the user with a heightened state of consciousness that can achieve interstellar travel and longer life. However, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his concubine, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) soon find more than meets the eye, when it comes to their newfound gifted responsibility from the Emperor, and former controllers of the planet’s spice production- House Harkonnen.
On the page, Dune is filled to the brim with many elements that harmonise to create a fascinating science-fiction epic. And this is without even mentioning the world-building that can veer into overwhelming territory at times. The screenplay, co-written by director, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth, and Jon Spaihts firmly plants its feet on two larger aspects of the novel. The first is a sense of fatalism that underpins the Atreides’ time on Dune. There’s a persistent sense of danger from larger forces at work that seek to crush the family’s political prominence. At the same time, there’s a clear ethos of Paul’s hero’s journey being akin to an inherited poisoned chalice. There are various visions the character has. They speak to the widespread turmoil and ruin his rule could bring. These moments coupled with a sense of one of the factions spreading a myth of a chosen one truly cements the screenwriters’ understanding of Herbert’s text.
If Dune is about anything then it’s about the interplay between how an environment defines someone and how various people attempt to imprint their will on said environment. This sense of myth clashing with political will is so clearly coursing through the veins of Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation.
However, despite these virtues, the screenplay does occasionally indulge in trite pseudo-intellectual lines that do feel jarring. Some ideas are also repeated in case the people at the back of the cinema did not hear them the first time. And a few adaptation choices do lessen the impact of some tertiary characters who had more vivid life in Lynch’s 1984 film.
Visually, Dune’s first part is a marvel. In spirit, it has the grand vintage epics in mind with some of the tall and imposing set design that injects its science-fiction world with an authentic sense of place. The film’s visuals standout in quite subtle ways too. There’s a scene on a fog engulfed landing platform that with its use of close-ups feels like a homage to Ingmar Bergman’s existential films. The use of shadow to partially obscure Paul’s profile also feels thematically resonating in illustrating the uncertainty of the character’s future.
Likewise, the introduction of the Bene Gesserit with minimal (almost heavenly) lighting is painterly and stunning. It put me in mind of the William Turner painting- “Peace- Burial at Sea”, which used light to illuminate the age and beauty of its central ship. The same can be said of the Gesserit shot in illustrating the almost centuries-old existence of the female group. But some of my most favourite visual moments from Dune came from the shots that attempted to harmonise Dust Bowl era imagery and Middle Eastern exoticism.
Despite being saddled with the label of a naive boy throughout the film, Timothée Chalamet displays an impressive sense of authority and determinism in his performance as Paul. Stellan Skarsgård cuts an imposing and grotesque figure as a reinterpreted Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who exists somewhere between Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars films. However, Rebecca Ferguson steals the show in an impressive near-silent performance that walks a fine line between fragile and strong.
In a year that’s seen Hans Zimmer work on big movies such as Wonder Woman 1984 and No Time to Die, it’s quite something that his best score proves to be Dune. It’s an interesting inversion of his usual percussive work that’s employed to imbue tension, much like some of Ennio Morricone’s music did in Sergio Leone’s Western films. However, the German composer outdoes himself with an experimental, sharp, piercing, and ominous theme for the Bene Gesserit, which illustrates their uniformity and power as individuals.
Overall, Dune is an astounding singular work. It’s a film that embraces the convictions of the source material and trusts the audience to keep up with its vision. Long gone are the days of two-page glossaries being handed out at screenings for fear of audience comprehension. Instead, Villeneuve believes in the cinema to weave Herbert’s complex source material.