Culture writer Steven Kelly of the BBC may have anointed Denis Villeneuve “the sci-fi director of the 21st century” a mere fifth of the way in with decades to go (hyperbole much, Steven?). Nonetheless, thanks in part to Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, the 54-year-old Canadian is certainly leading the field by a large margin. But this is Dune. It’s not an insular time bender or long-distance sequel to an established property. This is a worshipped literary Holy Grail that has been chased by many for years and killed a few careers along the way. Even a consummate blockbuster auteur like Villeneuve had challenges.
Could any Dune adaptation appease the book-is-better-than-the-movie cultists this fantasy tome carries? The dedicated fanbase who can distill their melange, play a baliset, and tell their Gom Jabbar from their Kwisatz Haderach are showing up regardless. More importantly, especially when it comes to scoring the kind of crowds to create a franchise, can the uninformed come to Dune and leave inspired and impressed? Can casual fans find the patience and headspace to take Dune’s silly jargon and pensive politics as easily as they do laser swords and sensitive energy fields emanating from a galaxy far, far away?
All can be asked in a simpler way. Can the melodramatic be made mythic and can the gaudy be made truly grand? Do that and you’ve got the fans and the newbies. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune moves a great many things in spectacular fashion: sand, swords, aircraft, plots, necks, eardrums, eyelids, and more. For all its triumphant fury, what Dune doesn’t move is the heart. That is the unconquered core barrier that remains unshaken. Golly, do we ever have a jaw-dropping and cold movie!
Designed to split Frank Hebert’s 1965 novel in half for an anticipated sequel, Dune focuses on a young man from the planet Caladan named Paul Atriedes (Timothée Chalamet) with two substantial birthrights. He is the lone heir of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of the House Atreides, the new steward of the mineral-rich desert world of Arrakis. Paul is also the son of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a Bene Gesserit conjurer whose offspring has the potential to become the messianic Kwisatz Haderach for all the known universe. Under Leto, Paul is educated and trained for military prowess and political leadership. With his mother, he is taught the supreme discipline and fortitude to achieve semi-magical dominance through a various array of Bene Gesserit metaphysical abilities.
He is the best of both worlds. This kid has it made! Not so fast.
The chess board in front of the ruling Atriedes family is one fraught with interplanetary class competition, planted superstitions, enormous sandworms, disconnection with indigenous people, competing claims for coveted spice melange, advantageous alliances, internal betrayals, and the stages set for war. The opponent in this blood feud is the warmongering House Harkonnen of the planet Giedi Prime, led by the rotund and grotesque Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard). Both sides have their favored political backers in high places and boots-on-the-ground loyal subordinates (Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa for Atreides, Dave Bautista and David Dastmalchian for Harkonnen) carrying out the maneuvers of this strategic clash on the arid badlands.
Throughout this escalating conflict, Paul is tormented by vivid, melange-enhanced dreams that frame different versions of his possible future. Several cast his ascension to rebellion victory alongside the Fremen natives of Arrakis, led by the rugged Stilgar (Javier Bardem). Those fantasies include a striking Fremen wife named Chani (Zendaya) he’s never met yet. Other nightmares predict his failure and violent demise inside the heat of cruel survival duels.
If, as the movie and novel say, “dreams are messages from the deep,” which particular depth is being explored and which path will come true for Paul Atreides? To everyone else around him saying, “Dreams make good stories” and “Everything important happens when you’re awake,” they live and die by their blades and iron wills, not quizzical predictions calling for a prophet powerful enough to bridge space and time. The depth must be in the mind and the gut.
Through that angle, the other binding pillar of Paul’s rise is combating fear, a classic emerging hero’s journey that has been well-told before and after Dune, and one competing with those aforementioned dreams. “Fear is the mind killer,” the movie says. All the prophecies in any given heaven can promise any number of outcomes. At some point, those successes must be fought and earned, even to the point of dealing out death, to break that distress and make a man a leader.
Timothée Chalamet is the grave vessel for the two-pronged struggle. The Call Me By Your Name Oscar nominee curiously plays both mental obstacles with the same overly blank expressions and low resonance. He furrows a brow of consternation beneath his luscious locks and guards against any extra pent-up pops of emotion in his mordant line readings. While Chalamet is not as dry as a Yorgos Lanthimos film, per se, he’s awfully close to that level, making for a rather tedious and, frankly, boring “hero” that is hard to get behind. For a movie that rarely leaves Paul’s stances, that’s a big chunk of missing moxie and spirit right in its center.
That encouraging mettle has to be extruded elsewhere. Getting it from the periphery isn’t quite enough. Trying where they can, Oscar Issac, Rebecca Ferguson, and Jason Momoa offer admirable sparks of pride as the influential parents and the gallant swordsman confidantes to Paul. Zendaya hints at becoming a reinforcement in the next half, but she’s merely a far-off vision for most of this beginning part. The electricity of screen presence definitely clings to them, but the proverbial clouds are dense.
To that end, the portending is laid on thick in Dune. Screenwriters Jon Spaihts (Passengers), Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), and Villeneuve himself thankfully compress the massive narrations of the book into shortened omens of selectively paraphrased exposition. The promise of a second movie tempers the pacing and allows this opening portion to stretch and breathe with appropriate justice and due diligence.
The other highly concentrated measures of Dune are the towering production values. The exotic filming locations of Jordan, Hungary, Abu Dhabi, and Norway presented a massive palette of scale for the production designs of frequent Villeneuve collaborator Patrice Vermette (Arrival) and the visual effects insertions from the Oscar-winning team of Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor, and Gerd Nefzer (First Man, Blade Runner 2049). Cinematographer Greig Fraser (The Batman upcoming), and the directing Villeneuve for that matter, never met a liftoff or landing of a spaceship he didn’t want to excessively shoot twice to show off the futuristic toys managed by aerial coordinator Cliff Fleming and second unit director Tom Struthers. Too often, the metallic and lavishly threaded stuff outshines the people.
Furthermore, in a complimentary way, the sound of Dune will plaster you to your seat, whether that’s at home on HBO Max or on a proper big screen. Composer Hans Zimmer, backed by the rhythmic vocals of his Gladiator muse Lisa Gerrard and recording artist Loire Cotler, hammers out a powerhouse score that makes his “braaam” notes from Inception feel like a Fisher-Price xylophone. Tone and mood are instantly set. Combine that with engine-roaring sound design from Theo Green and you have an aural assault and the best use of Dolby Atmos and IMAX in a long, long time.
It’s a shame the cinematic sound is what rattles a viewer more than the stakes and characters in this incarnation of Dune. All told, this destiny cauldron of dreams and fear makes for a heavy and grim ordeal. Yes, spectacle or not, Villeneuve’s undertaking is an ordeal at this point more than an enigmatic adventure. While the presentation is impressively built, maybe a few doses of gaudy melodrama wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. For now, this is a gorgeous, ruminative labor of exertion. Audiences will have to bank on the promise that, like the slog its source material is for three-fourths of its chapters and pages, the adventure of it all is yet to come. Call it a test, just like what’s faced by the divinely-emerging lead character.