Directed by Denis Villeneuve, DUNE is an intelligent, emotional, and philosophical epic that trusts its audience to understand it. The Frank Herbert novel from the Dune series that it is based on is looked upon as being extremely complex and known as a book that is extremely hard to adapt. David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky have previously come to grief with successful and unsuccessful attempts to bring the story to the screen. Villeneuve has solved the puzzle by taking a principle, that he states in the film, to heart and using it. There is no answer to life (or anything else), there is only the experience. Villeneuve doesn’t get caught up in the terminology of a human society that has achieved interstellar travel through hallucinogenic drugs or the many themes or intricate plotlines, which, for all of that, aren’t really that complex. He simply shows the characters and their emotional lives against the backdrop of a royal power struggle, injustice, and a boy’s coming of age.
The film stars Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name, Little Women), Rebecca Ferguson (Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, Mission: Impossible – Fallout), Oscar Isaac (the Star Wars franchise) Josh Brolin (Milk, Avengers: Infinity War), Stellan Skarsgård (HBO’s “Chernobyl,” Avengers: Age of Ultron), Dave Bautista (the Guardians of the Galaxy films, Avengers: Endgame), Stephen McKinley Henderson (“Fences,” “Lady Bird”), Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming, HBO’s “Euphoria”), David Dastmalchian (Blade Runner 2049, The Dark Knight), Chang Chen (“Mr. Long,” Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Netflix’s “Sex Education”), with Charlotte Rampling (45 Years, Assassin’s Creed), with Jason Momoa (“Aquaman,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), and Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall).
DUNE is the story of Paul Atreides, heir to the Dukedom of Leto Atreides. He is the son of Leto and Lady Jessica, who is a member of the Bene Gesserit order. His father is ordered to leave the family home of Caladan to take over the fief of Arrakis, formerly the charge of House Harkonnen by the Emperor of the Known Universe, Shaddam the Fourth of the House of Corrino. The Duke and his people know that this is a trap, but there is no way to refuse and if they can be successful, the gateway to increased power and riches. They come to Arrakis or Dune, because the planet is a harsh desert planet with only one resource, the mining of the spice Melange, which is the key to everything.
Villeneuve obviously has a deep understanding and love for the story of DUNE. He refuses to accept the idea that the story is overly complex and defies understanding. He mostly shows rather than tells what is happening and it works brilliantly. He is even able to show the similarities between the Atreides homeworld, a planet with large oceans, and Arrakis. He uses the movements of the sandworms to suggest that the sand that covers the surface of DUNE is a lot like an ocean and he’s right. He shows the beauty of the scenery in each shot and uses it to set off the beauty and ugliness in the characters on the screen. He doesn’t consider Caladan the only place of beauty and Arrakis a Hellworld. Both places are beautiful in his directorial eye. Other than a few subtitles announcing what planet we are currently on in the opening scene of each section, no real effort is made to use large amounts of exposition to explain what is going on. By focusing on the emotions of the characters – sadness, anger, regret, evil – he renders most exposition moot. It’s all about the storytelling, as it should be. It’s remarkable in a film (and book series) that is so concerned with the power of the human mind and applications of mental power in the form of psychokinesis and precognition, that Villeneuve was so expertly able to use the power of suggestion that makes so much of what DUNE is really about clear to the viewer.
I’ll give you an example. In one scene, and it was also a wonderful example of Timothée Chalamet’s acting talent and why he was the right choice for this role, the shot is merely looking into Paul’s face on Caladan. He’s thinking. At that moment, I got a chill thinking that he really looked like he could be the child of the two actors who play his parents and it had not as much to do with looks. While looking at his face, I could feel the merging of the two parents that created the child. The melding of DNA that makes a child who they are through syngenesis on the cellular level. But it was visible. Look, I know how this sounds, but it’s a spectacular moment where not a word is spoken and an achievement that I’ve never seen before. I believed he was their child with just a look and I felt that belief in a way that Frank Herbert and the citizens of Arrakis would have approved of particularly in a film that has the strong theme of psychokinetic power within it.
The performances have such emotional depth. I will admit that I am not usually a fan of Rebecca Ferguson but in DUNE there are moments when her lack of emotional vulnerability is used for the good of the film. Her strangeness is a definite asset as well. That’s the character of Lady Jessica, emotionally reserved and strange. Oscar Isaac is particularly well cast as Duke Leto. His vulnerability and his strength of character make him fully believable as the Duke that men would be fanatically loyal to and who would attract envy from those who were less scrupulous. Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho was also a great casting. He’s that guy who you can’t help but like. Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays a gender-flipped Liet Kynes and has a similar quality. Stellan Skarsgård isn’t anything like the Baron Harkonnen of the Lynch adaptation. If anything, he seems like a negative space. A black hole of the self, which is a very interesting choice. Dave Bautista’s Beast Rabban is his most gleeful moment as Drax turned inside out into evil.
Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) wrote the screenplay with Villeneuve and it seems like rather than hacking away at what was in the book, the screenplay has streamlined the action and the themes of the book.
The special effects are ridiculously enjoyable and are the work of Oscar-winning special effects supervisors Paul Lambert (First Man, Blade Runner 2049) and Gerd Nefzer (Blade Runner 2049). The spaceships made my eyes pop and watching what looks like flying bricks defy gravity and soar and the realization of the ornithopters, which look like dragonflies, was incredibly satisfying for a fan of the book. In fact, there is at least one shot, during an attack sequence, that looks like a homage to the David Lynch film version and I liked that very much as well.
Greig Fraser, ASC, (Killing Them Softly, Zero Dark Thirty, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) creates cinematography that is stunning. Caladan is a cool and beautiful place. Geidi Prime, home of House Harkonnen, is dark and filled with shadows, Arrakis is filled with dangerous light. But it is the examination of faces where the film and its cinematography really excel. It’s like the camera is talking to you. I know that sounds pretty weird too, but it’s true.
The costumes are simple but make statements as well. Costume designer Jacqueline West (The Revenant, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Quills) and costume designer Robert Morgan did wonderful work. Yes, the stillsuits have a codpiece, and Jessica’s wardrobe when they land on Arrakis is gorgeous. The costume for the Reverend Mother is probably the most complex of the costumes that I saw and is wonderful. I went through an exhibit of the costumes after the screening and I read that this costume was a nod to Frank Herbert’s interests in Tarot and chess. That’s the kind of detail that we are talking about with DUNE.
Stunt coordinator Tom Struthers (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception) did good work with the fights and found a great way to show the concept of shield fighting, working together with the special effects department. It really works which is proof that it was work well done.
A word about the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer (Blade Runner 2049, Inception, Gladiator). As I left the screening, the final track was still playing in my head. I had no choice but to find the soundtrack on streaming and listen to it while driving home. It’s that memorable and that good. It does have nods to Middle Eastern music, choirs of male and female voices, odd percussion which is there to keep you off balance, but its center is long drawn-out vocal notes, which reminded me a bit of some of the work of Einstürzende Neubauten. It’s definitely one of his more experimental soundtracks and I love it.
I have to admit that I am a really big DUNE fan, the books and the philosophy of the books, but I wasn’t set up to love the movie. Admittedly, I was a bit wary of it because my expectations are high and I understand the book and its content very well. My father was a big DUNE fan, like me, he even liked the David Lynch adaptation. The greatest compliment that I can pay to Denis Villeneuve’s DUNE is that I wish that my father was here to see it. He would have loved it every bit as much as I do.
Denis Villeneuve’s DUNE is the type of epic filmmaking that many reach for and can’t grasp. Full of emotional resonance and with the philosophical core of the book coursing through the film’s veins like lifeblood, it puts other franchises to shame. It’s human and otherworldly at the same time. Villeneuve has attained a level of filmmaking that plants ideas in your mind like the Kwisatz Haderach himself. DUNE is the glorious, luminous, and virtuoso work of an exceptional artist.
DUNE is now available in theaters and is available on HBO Max. All images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.