Written by: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård
Carrying the dreaded description of unadaptable as a science-fiction or fantasy novel has come to fruition mostly because of the impracticality of telling said story within a feature-length film. Whether it be too much lore or the difficulty of content translated to the visual medium, Dune has carried this for decades now. If one person could have succeeded in bringing it to life, I would wager all my money on Denis Villeneuve, and thank goodness he did because it results in a science-fiction masterpiece.
With the Harkonnens called back from their longheld patrol of Arrakis, the Emperor of the Imperium has tasked the Atreides family led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) to assume stewardship of the planet. Upon their arrival, the son of the Duke, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) receives a vision of a possible future as the Harkonnens move to take back what they deem to be theirs.
Adapting a work of this magnitude to this level truly defines what makes an incredible filmmaker and I have not been shy in my complete adoration of Denis Villeneuve as a director. Each of his films contains stunning visuals, utterly human stories, and a sense of scale whenever called upon. He incorporates all of these facets in Dune where his adaptation decides to split the novel into two parts and makes the incredibly smart choice to put much more focus on Paul, as his journey drives everything going on in a larger sense. The difficulty in adapting any novel comes from deciding what to cut out, and yes after reading the novel, specific key events were left on the cutting room floor, but the distinctly human element of Paul’s journey remains intact, if not enhanced by this spectacular film.
Beginning with a voiceover by Chani (Zendaya) about the beauty of her planet and how it has been ravaged by the Harkonnens, this film demonstrates the efficient and impactful way it lays out the exposition of this story. This comes as one of the major challenges of adapting the source material. There’s so much information that must be disseminated in order for audience members to fully understand the political and character motivations. The way this opening lays out much of what we need to know from the beginning and then cutting right to Paul tells us what’s important in this adaptation. This can never be mistaken. The narrative can be surmised as a white savior story, but as Chani’s opening states, this might not be as clear as many might believe.
In bringing this world to life, the visuals do such a splendid job in showing the scale of everything compared to the humans of the story. Very much a trademark in Villeneuve’s films. This is achieved by ensuring the humans remain in the shot for comparison. It works so much better than just showing the giant objects in their own frame where it’s limited in scope. When comparing, let’s say, a worm to Paul, it shows the incredible danger involved in the world of Arrakis and how it will take more than ingenuity to succeed here. Perhaps a little desert power will be necessary. This idea of scale displays what makes this such a visual masterwork with several scenes simply leaving me in awe such as when the Atreides rescue the workers in the sand harvester before the arrival of a deadly worm. Utterly gorgeous to look at as it gets paired with an absolutely ridiculously terrific score by Hans Zimmer.
It comes as no surprise Hans Zimmer has always been a massive fan of Dune because he really ramped it up with his score. From the audacity to introduce the use of bagpipes, everything about this musical composition absolutely rips and sets the scene for what these characters will eventually experience. Whether it be the ponderous track of “Leaving Caladan” or the frightening tremors of “Ripples in the Sand” every musical touch leaves its mark in the feature and continually adds to what makes this film such a technical achievement. Certainly, something enhanced by having the most supreme sound available to absorb it all but this work stands alone as a legendary piece of musical work.
Not to continue on with the technical achievements of this feature, but it’s hard not to heap praise on the wonderful accomplishment by this entire crew. From the impeccable costume design by Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan immersing us into this world and the startlingly fantastic production design of Patrice Vermette. Each set and world has its unique features from the dark and blue tint of Caladan to the hot and gray aesthetic of Arrakis, every set contains its characteristics in defining who can survive there simply from what they wear. This also provides the opportunity to heap mountains of praise towards cinematographer Greg Frasier, who truly cannot do wrong and ensures the interiors and exteriors receive the proper amount of lighting to ensure the mood of each scene matches what the narrative calls for. Such an impeccable collaboration on a technical level and that’s before even discussing the breathtaking visual effects on display.
Typically with features of this magnitude leaning so much on its technical elements, the performances can be left behind in not being discussed as they need to but as stated before, Villeneuve amidst everything wanted to focus on the characters and the emotional journeys they go on surpasses what can even be achieved in the book. From the added emotional moments held between Leto and Paul to everything happening with Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). As an integral part of the novel, her involvement in this adaptation would be critical and Ferguson, to absolutely no surprise, absolutely nails everything this role asks for. Serving as both Paul’s mother and a member of the Bene Gesserit, the internal turmoil this character goes through truly pulls so much of the emotional weight of this story. It never gets lost even within these epic set pieces and only gets amplified when working opposite Timothée Chalamet.
Not being jealous of this guy’s talent becomes difficult when he has proven himself to be a phenomenal actor in smaller films, but with Dune he proves he can also headline a major blockbuster and still deliver a sensational performance. Whether it be in the excellently executed Gom Jabbar scene where he faces off with Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) or the tent scene where his visions show him a future filling him with fear, the overwhelming aspect of this journey for him sits right on Chalamet’s face. He defines what makes epic blockbuster acting and puts other leading men to shame with what he accomplishes with Paul. Complexities and all, Chalamet takes it all on with such surety.
This does not take away from the bevy of strong supporting performances from the likes of Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, and so many more. It feels somewhat impossible thinking back on this film how this narrative can be so rooted in Paul and Lady Jessica’s story while also having a host of supporting characters deliver stunners in their limited time. Each of their contributions has remained etched in my head because of their impact. From the unmitigated fear Charlotte Rampling evokes in the Gom Jabbar scene to Jason Momoa’s vastly improved portrayal of Duncan Idaho, this entire cast got something great to chew on and they did not miss a beat in ensuring they left their mark.
With this serving as a review and not a full-fledged analysis, there could be more dug into this feature like the brilliant way Villeneuve utilizes visions in this adaptation to the other ingenious changes from the book, this feature defines what makes a spectacular adaptation. Not only did Villeneuve do the impossible in adapting half this story to be completed later, but he showed immense respect to the source material while adding his own flavor to the story. The impact of this feature on me cannot be understated seeing as it got me to absolutely devour the novel as I have become obsessed with this story and the way it will carry on in the next chapter on the big screen. Yes, it’s half the story but go watch the 1984 version to see why trying to take this all on in one feature would end in disaster.
Thinking on every aspect this feature has to offer, I cannot come to any other conclusion than this being one of the seminal works of the science-fiction genre. It ensures those new to the material can follow along and rewards those who have adored this story either for a day or decades. A completely visionary and sublime piece of work only growing more in my estimations the more I think on the subtle changes made and the way this team brought this story to life. Villeneuve proves once again why he’s my favorite living director as this science-fiction masterpiece of a novel received the adaptation it deserves to the highest degree.