Dune — Denis Villeneuve (Detailed Review, No Spoilers)

Rating: A-

I still remember the summer as a kid when I picked up a worn book off my fathers shelf that had all sorts of desert imagery on it and an intriguing name. As I opened the dusty tome it began with some arcane quote from the far future describing the distant past and featuring galactic emperors, sisterhoods and noble houses. I didn’t know what any of it meant but I was immediately drawn in. Who were Shaddam IV and Princess Irulan? Who was Muad’Dib and why did he move from the euphonic Planet Caladan to the sibilant Planet Arrakis? And most importantly why was Arrakis or Dune forever his place?

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.

– from “Manual of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan

Written by Frank Herbert in the 1960s the book covered complex themes ranging from the finite nature of ecological resources and their destruction to the natural human tendency to tend toward feudalism where some lead and others only follow, particularly in the context of messianic religious figures. However what was even more magnetic was the exotic world building that had parallels with real world issues. In the book only one planet in the universe has a rare resource called Spice or Melange, a drug that extends life, enhances mental abilities and is necessary for space navigation. Think of it as an intergalactic oil curse where outside powers vie for it’s control at the expense of the local inhabitants — familiar enough right?.

Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation has to be taken in the context of not only the success of the book but also alongside all the heroic failures to adapt the film. Most famously Jodorowsky’s Dune back in the early 70s which would have pre-dated Star Wars and featured David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson, Salvador Dali, and Orson Welles to name a few. It also would have had a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and special effects by Dan O’Bannon (who later made the special effects for Star Wars and Alien). While it was never made, it’s artistic ambition and influence have had a massive influence on the sci-fi genre and are captured in this wonderful documentary.

Character concept art by Moebius for Jodorowsky’s Dune

David Lynch also made an attempt at adapting the book in the 80s and even managed to release a film, however it was unfairly panned by critics, disowned by the director for not having being involved in the editing process and very quickly forgotten.

The 80s were the beginning of the time when sci-fi blockbusters such as Star Wars and He-Man were made largely with toy sales and merchandising in mind. In this way Lynch’s version stands out as pushing the bounds of the genre and truly bearing the mark of auteurship and genuine creativity. Don’t get me wrong, Lynch’s Dune was in no way perfect and it missed a lot of the book’s subtleties in favour of Lynchian weirdness but it does have it’s own unique flavour. It’s no surprise his film has grown a cult following since.

Another obstacle for any adaptation of Dune is the fact that so much of sci-fi since it’s release has ripped entire ideas from it, particularly Star Wars which even Frank Herbert called out when it was released. One very obvious ripoff that’s worth mentioning is that both Star Wars and Dune feature a protagonist on a desert planet (Luke on Tatooine and now Rey on Jakku) who get a call to adventure which leads them through all sorts of hardships and obstacles as they come to their true power and rescue the universe from totalitarianism. There are too many others to list here but check out this video that goes into the details.

So with all of this, Denis Villeneuve certainly had some very big shoes to fill. However as a fan of the original book I can truly say his vision was successful and remained as faithful as he could have to the source material.

The decision to split the book into two films originally gave me pause. Was this another studio ploy to milk as much as they can from the franchise? The book itself is very dense and I think lumping it into one movie would have made it suffer some of the pitfalls of Lynch’s film. Also detailed world-building and setting the atmosphere and tone just right is important in the book and would have also suffered if it were all in one film.

Next casting is very important, particularly for the protagonist Paul. The character begins as a naïve 15 year old at the beginning of the book and by the end is leading a planetary rebellion. For the role to be believable you need someone who can still pass as a teenager, yet have the emotional depth and range to play an adult in the next part.

For that reason I thought Chalamet was well cast as he has a sort of look that’s youthful yet with wizened eyes that makes him appear older than his years. It’s also why Kyle MacLachlan felt miscast in Lynch’s version (a full 10 years older than Chalamet when he played the same role).

The rest of the ensemble cast is also hard to argue against — within House Atreides, Oscar Isaac plays Paul’s father Leto, Rebecca Ferguson his mother Lady Jessica and Josh Brolin/Jason Momoa play weapon-masters and Paul’s mentors Gurney and Duncan Idaho. On the villainous Harkonnen side you also have a stellar cast with Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban, the nephew of Baron Harkonnen and David Dastmalchian as Piter De Vries, the Mentat of House Harkonnen. While with a smaller role in the first part than in the second, the Fremen (local inhabitants of Arrakis are also well cast), with Zendaya as Chani, a young Fremen woman that Paul keeps seeing in his dreams and Javier Bardem as Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen tribe at Sietch Tabr.

Production design is another aspect that is tough to get right not just for Dune but for any sci-fi film for that matter. So much of the ‘Used Future’ aesthetic has been defined by Star Wars, Blade Runner and Alien that it’s difficult for new films to use this aesthetic without looking cliché. In a similar vein, all the other key sci-fi set pieces such as starships, weapons, tech and all the glitzy futuristic effects people flock to the genre for have been done in almost every imaginable way. Denis Villeneuve pulls off this fine balancing act with a truly visionary production design that mixes elements of ‘Used Future’ sci-fi with dark fantasy elements. He achieves this with the help of his career-long production designer Patrice Vermette whose work here really pays homage to both Jodorowsky’s vision as well as staying true to his low tech sci-fi approach in previous films such as Arrival and Blade Runner.

Finally and most importantly the film really comes to it’s own through the use of a powerful and expressive score produced by Hans Zimmer. When Zimmer heard that Villeneuve was making Dune he said he absolutely had to do it and for the first time ever he turned down working with Christopher Nolan due to scheduling constraints with Dune.

The score distances itself from the 80s synth soundscape associated with a lot of sci-fi films and creates very unique orchestral themes for the different planets. It begins with deep resounding horns and bag pipes, sounds of House Atreides’ home planet Caladan and moves to the more exotic percussive sounds of Arrakis which also feature some desert elegies using the melancholic and contemplative sound of the duduk as well as some chants in a made-up language created for the score. Listening to the Arrakis segments with it’s mix of exotic, spiritual and epic reminds me of Peter Gabriel’s score for Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ which for those who’ve read the book is an interesting parallel and set-up for what’s to come in the second part next year.

Until then check out the trailer below and mark down the release date in your calendar as this is one to definitely check out on the silver screen!

US Release Date: Oct 22nd 2021 (Distributed by Warner Media)

UK Release Date: Oct 21st 2021 (Distributed by Warner Media)

Canada Release Date: Oct 22nd 2021 (Distributed by Warner Media)