Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling
Words – C.J. Abbott
When it was first announced Denis Villeneuve would tackle Dune, expectations were immediately at cosmic levels. Following his breath-taking science fiction debut with Arrival, and staggering continuation with Blade Runner 2049, it seemed certain Dune was in safe hands. The story of Dune in cinema stretches back decades, before Alien, before Star Wars, before 2001: A Space Odyssey, there was only Dune.
Originally written by Frank Herbert in 1965, the book has become legend, cementing itself as the foundation of modern science-fiction. Considered a bible for the genre, a big-screen adaptation was quickly deemed impossible. Many filmmakers did try, and indeed fail, to capture the essence of the piece. From Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unmade psychedelic epic to David Lynch’s inspired but misguided 1984 release, Dune has always been an untameable beast for filmmakers. Villeneuve had an unfathomable mountain to climb, but if anyone could reach the summit, it was him.
Thankfully, after five years of waiting, after delays, questions regarding sequels, and enduring a global pandemic, Dune has arrived. From the moment the first frame hit the screen, all tensions, expectations, and concerns were buried beneath the sands of Arrakis. Not only has Villeneuve captured the essence of the novel, but he has crafted one of the most ambitious and truly awe-inspiring epics in years.
It is that – epic, in the true sense of the word. The scope of the film blows the mind, everything is on a galactic scale, from the planet-sized Spacing Guild ships, to the monolithic Arrakeen architecture, to the lumbering Harrkonnen soldiers, cinema hasn’t felt this grandiose in quite some time.
Taking place thousands of years into a distant future, humanity has returned to the days of imperial rule, governing houses, and aristocratic decadence. In a universe of plenty, only one world produces spice – Arrakis. This is the substance that allows for interstellar travel, making it the most valuable resource in the galaxy. For 80 years House Harkonnen has ruled Arrakis, their Dune, but by imperial decree, they must relinquish control. House Atreides has been gifted the world, to ensure the production of spice continues. Young Paul Atreides, played by Timothee Chalamet, is the son of Duke Leto, Oscar Isaac, the head of House Atreides, and soon finds himself thrust into a world of deception, betrayal, and, of course, giant sandworms.
Greig Fraser oversaw the cinematography of the film, known for his work on Rogue One, Vice, and Zero Dark Thirty. He has managed to capture the scope of the Dune universe expertly, through the use of biblically scaled wide-shots. Angling the characters, ships, building the vastness of Arrakis and beyond. One of the more esoteric elements of the book was Paul Atreides’ visions, a seemingly nightmarish undertaking on a visual level. Yet, Fraser stripped back the complexity of the description to reveal something beautiful and unknowable. Villeneuve and Fraser gave Dune a crisp visual style that made the world seem alien and familiar, an instantly understandable vision of the future.
This was aided by some incredible sound design, from the booming bass of the Harkonnen warships to the whispered breeze of the sand, every aspect was given meticulous detail and love. Best of all, the portrayal of The Voice, the ability to command others through word, was expertly realised. The sound of the chilling words had an almost horrific tone, terrifying in their strangeness.
All this was held on the shoulders of Chalamet, who goes from a quietly fierce boy to the beginnings of a warrior god over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. In the role of Paul, Chalamet is in almost every scene, bearing the brunt of the project. Once again, he proves himself to be one of the most capable and versatile actors working today, giving Paul the nobility and leadership the character demands. He wasn’t alone though, as the entire cast brings everything into their parts. Rebecca Ferguson stars as Lady Jessica, the mother of Paul and Bene Gesserit. She is both cold and warm, struggling to reconcile her teaching Bene Gesserit with her mother’s love for Paul. By far, Ferguson gives the most heartbreaking performance in the film, as she slowly watches her boy change before her eyes.
Oscar Isaac is equally impressive as Duke Leto, Paul’s father. He is both wise and loving, a symbol of the very best this harsh world has to offer. In many ways, Leto is the voice of reason, a man betrayed for his kind heart, manipulated due to admiration. On the other hand, completely opposed to him is Stellan Skarsgard’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the brutish and beastly head of Arrakis’s former masters. He is enormous, literally. Each scene with his presence is uncomfortable as his grotesque mass floats through the film. He is a villain that simply just needs to be in a room for the viewer to feel the intimidation.
All this comes together to create a piece that is not only impressive but genuinely important. A film that Hollywood desperately needs to succeed. The combination of intelligent filmmaking with a franchise mentality. Dune leaves the audience wanting more, actually needing more, finishing well before the original book comes to a close. This is a story that is half-finished but still feels narratively satisfying. If and when Part Two ever releases to wrap up the story, if it is at the same level of quality Part One is, this will go down as one of the best franchises in decades.