Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem
Run Time: 156 mins
Dune is the long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s first novel in his sci-fi series. It is directed by Denis Villeneuve, one of the most innovative talents in film at the moment behind films such as Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. The latter two films were Villeneuve’s first foray into sci-fi and Blade Runner 2049 in particular proved that the filmmaker could tackle a sacred sci-fi property.
As a property, Dune has experienced a particularly hard life in a filmmaker being able to successfully transpose the novel from the page to the screen. Revered maverick Alejandro Jodorowsky unsuccessfully attempted to film an adaptation and ended up citing it as ‘unfilmable’. David Lynch’s adaptation made it to screens in 1984 but his film was the result of studio interference and it received mixed reviews, with Lynch disowning and distancing himself from his work. Lynch’s film has many traits of the auteur and there are some unsettling and visually arresting images but it is an unwieldy work that is often incoherent in that it chronicles the entirety of the novel in just over two hours.
Villeneuve certainly has his work cut out for him, but if there is anyone who could take on a behemoth such as this, it is him. He has made the wise decision to split the novel into two films and he has assembled a star-studded cast and reliable crew for the task. It is an especially ambitious yet commendable decision to film half of a novel when the prospect of a second part isn’t guaranteed. One only needs to look back at what happened to Blade Runner 2049, which although it received a rapturous response, severely underperformed at the box office.
This first film establishes the House of Atreides, a family who live on the ocean planet of Caladan. The universe is ruled by Padishah Emperor Shaddam and he assigns the Atreides family to replace the House of Harkonnen as rulers of the planet of Arrakis, also known as Dune. Arrakis is a desert planet and is the source of ‘spice’, a valuable substance that prolongs youth, life and enables interstellar travel.
Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is the protagonist and is the son of Duke Leto of Atreides (Oscar Isaac), the ruler of Atreides and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Lady Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a political and religious power who train their minds and bodies through conditioning to obtain superhuman-like abilities. Paul has regular visions of what appears to be the future and early in the film, he is visited by a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) who subjects him to a test, which he passes. He is referred to as a messianic figure, who can guide humanity to a more stable and prosperous future.
Once the House of Atreides relocate to Arrakis, there are betrayals and challenges aplenty, setting off an irreversible chain of events.
There is much to admire in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, who has proven that the material is not ‘unfilmable’. The decision to split the adaptation into two is an excellent one and the film especially impresses in how it skilfully spins a coherent narrative that is relatively straightforward enough to follow. This was the key downfall of Lynch’s film and it’s always hard to emotionally invest in a film that you cannot understand. It’s certainly not a requirement to have prior knowledge of the material before watching this.
Villeneuve’s adaptation is particularly cine-literate and the world-building is remarkable. He beautifully captures the arid and nomadic conditions of Arrakis and juxtaposes this with the water-rich yet isolated imagery of Caladan and the black nightmare of the House of Harkonnen. Dune is a visual spectacle and Villeneuve’s anger towards the film receiving a simultaneous streaming release in certain territories is justified.
The film is particularly strong in its first act, as it sets the stage for conflict and establishes its sizeable roster of characters. The second and third acts become increasingly action-heavy and build on the spectacle. There is always a danger with big-budget blockbusters such as these for the authorship of the director to be minimised but this is not the case here. Villeneuve’s signature brooding, black imagery is utilised to great effect. The sequence where Paul is tested by the Reverend Mother is particularly reminiscent of a nightmare, very much in the vein of his unsettling yet mind-boggling Jake Gyllenhaal thriller, Enemy. The dreams Paul experiences are beautifully handled, intercut into Paul’s reality, effecting a fragmented milieu.
The performances all-around are excellent, although there are some characters who are short-changed that will have a greater presence in a second film. Timothee Chalamet makes a seamless transition to this behemoth of a project and is particularly convincing and messianic as Paul. Rebecca Ferguson’s had a spotty career so far with more misses than hits but this is a strong performance from her. Stellan Skarsgård is the standout of the cast as the levitating and grotesque antagonist Vladimir Harkonnen, who is used sparingly and is brought to life through visual effects. Stephen McKinley Henderson also has a small role as the Atreides Menat but impresses with a sincere and twinkly performance.
Of the rest of the ensemble, Oscar Isaac is typically reliable as Duke Leto and Josh Brolin plays himself. Charlotte Rampling makes for an icy and emotionless Reverend Mother whilst Jason Momoa adds in some swashbuckling action and wisecracking humour as Duncan, one of Paul’s mentors. Javier Bardem, Zendaya and Dave Bautista all have very minor roles this time around but they should play a heavier part in a sequel.
The score by Hans Zimmer is fitting and he establishes some memorable themes. It is perhaps not quite as innovative as some of his other works, but there are moments of pure Zimmer bombast such as the inclusion of bagpipes. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is astonishing and beautifully complements Villeneuve’s direction from dimly lit, claustrophobic sequences to opulent, yet ferocious vistas of the desert.
If there are any flaws to the film, it is that it has to deal with some of the baggage that comes with the first film in a franchise, in that its final act lacks a climax, given that we are only at the half way point of the story. One major character knowingly remarks in the closing moments to another that “This is just the beginning.”
Dune is ultimately an unqualified success of an adaptation and yet again cements Villeneuve as one of the key directors of our times. He establishes the rules and boundaries of Hebert’s literary world seamlessly and sets the stage with aplomb for a second part. This is pure cinema through and through and demands to be experienced on the biggest screen possible. Villeneuve retains his signature authorship and Dune feels like a Villeneuve film through-and-through. This was one of the problems I had with Blade Runner 2049, which left me rather cold, as Villeneuve tried to ape Ridley Scott’s original. I will be very surprised if a second part isn’t commissioned and it will be an uncomfortably long wait for its release.