First published in 1965, Frank Herbert’s Dune was hailed as a science-fiction masterpiece, praised for its complex characters and imaginative world-building built on intricate, interweaving storylines. At the same time, it was seen as the sort of novel that would be impossible to translate to the big screen in any faithful (much less coherent) manner. The infamous 1984 attempt by David Lynch, and an uneven Sci-Fi Channel miniseries in 2000 did little to dispel the notion. Thus, when it was announced that acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) would be the latest to try, the news was met with a degree of cautious optimism.
Could Villeneuve’s award-winning knack for crafting deliberately-paced, cerebral science fiction succeed where so many others had failed? And, more importantly, with lockdown restrictions in the Philippines easing, is this incredibly star-studded effort worth the trek out to the cinema?
Read on to find out!
Dune is told primarily told through the perspective of Paul (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name, Interstellar), the young son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, Star Wars), and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible). As the story opens, the Atreides family has been placed in charge of Arrakis, a desert planet rich in “spice”, a substance prized for its use in interstellar navigation. Unbeknownst to House Atreides, the Harkonnen family — which previously presided over Arrakis — is actively plotting to reclaim the planet, even if it means killing every member of the new rulers. As the rival houses move towards an inevitable, brutal confrontation, and the role of the planet’s indigenous people remains ambiguous, Paul will be confronted with a destiny he never could have imagined.
Whole New World(s)
At its core, Dune is the story of a group of colonizers who get caught between their colonizer rivals and the government they all supposedly serve. Real-world parallels abound, from how nobody is ever truly benevolent when they arrive to rob your country of its natural resources, to the compelling notions of free will versus destiny that lead to its hero’s eventual emergence as a literal white savior to the downtrodden brown natives of Arrakis.
Where the 1984 adaptation stumbled in trying to cram 412 pages into a single film, Villeneuve has been quoted as saying that he always designed his version to take place across at least two films. Thus, a large bulk of Dune is devoted to set-up, introducing us to the worlds and characters we’ll be spending the next several hours with. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, one does have concerns as to how it was executed.
Adaptation vs translation
With a sci-fi/fantasy novel as impenetrably dense and detailed (and utterly merciless to anyone looking for light reading) as Dune, the ultimate success of the adaptation depends largely on the director’s ability to make audiences care about what’s going on. For every Game of Thrones, which showed that mainstream audiences would happily watch fantasy political power battles if they were well-made and presented properly, we have, well, messes like the 1984 Dune.
To put things in the context of another book-to-blockbuster, one need look no further than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (the less said about The Hobbit films that followed, the better). That series’ biggest achievement wasn’t its translating of Tolkien’s ideas and concepts to film, so much as it was in adapting them in a way that didn’t alienate newcomers to the franchise. Where those films were distinguished by their fantasy setting, one didn’t need to know anything of elves, orcs, and/or wizards, to understand the themes and emotions at play.
Sadly, the same can’t be said about Dune. Despite the considerable talents of the powerhouse cast, everyone here plays their characters in a manner so subdued as to be deadpan, with line readings uttered as flat exclamations, rather than real (sci-fi) things said by real (sci-fi) people. While Villeneuve and his team have done a superlative job of bringing Herbert’s lore to big-screen life, one doesn’t entirely get the sense that they succeeded at adapting it for the uninitiated.
Thankfully, our eyes have literally nothing to complain about.
The good(?) guys
Hands down, this has to be the best-looking, most-talented cast assembled of this (or any other) year: from Issacs, Ferguson, and Chalamet’s incredible bone structures fronting House Atreides, to their lieutenants, portrayed by Josh Brolin (Avengers: Endgame) and Jason Momoa (Justice League), there isn’t a weak link in the bunch. Caught in the middle are the indigenous Fremen of Arrakis (who are more than a little annoyed by the colonialist activities taking place), as represented by Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall) and Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming).
Isaac, as the stern (but fair) Duke Leto, does what he can with the material, but he can’t help but be outshone by Ferguson who delivers the best performance in the film; a mere 13 years older than her on-screen son, her fierce maternal protectiveness shines through, even as she is revealed to have played a role in manipulating his genetic code in hopes of creating an artificial messiah.
The “bad” guys
At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, the Harkonnen side of the equation seems deliberately designed to be as diametrically opposed to the Atreides as possible, with Stellan Skarsgård (Mamma Mia, Thor) donning a fat suit as Vladimir, backed up by the almost-unrecognizable likes of David Dastmalchian (The Suicide Squad’s Pola-Dot Man!) and Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy, Spectre) as his henchmen.
Skarsgård chews the scenery whenever he’s onscreen, displaying a disdain for clothing that ties in directly with Vladimir’s love of skulking in shadows like an outer space version of Brando’s Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. As handled by Skarsgård, what should, in theory, look ridiculous — given his obese character’s penchant for (literally) hovering overhead in the nude while chastising his minions — comes across as an altogether offbeat sort of acting decision that the film probably could have used more of.
Thoughts of Zendaya
As Paul, Chalamet is unremarkable as the young heir who will eventually rally against his traditional upbringing to fight for and eventually bring (duh) freedom to the Fremen. Having been raised to take over the family business, Chalamet’s expressive face does a decent job of conveying his character’s internal conflicts, even as he is tormented(?) by visions of Zendaya’s Chani that resemble luxurious perfume ads more than anything else. To be honest, few things in this film are as relatable as a teenager having Zendaya on the brain, but seeing as the film pretty much ends when the two of them finally meet, we’ll have to wait until the recently-approved sequel to see how this love story turns out.
The devil’s in the details
Undeniably, the movie succeeds at bringing the worlds of Herbert’s works to living, breathing life. The level of care taken to create everything on display is nothing less than stunning, from the opulent costumes of the main characters to the worn, lived-in look of the Fremen’s stillsuits. That attention to detail extends throughout the production — whether one is admiring the architecture of the Atreides family compound, or recoiling at the monstrous visages of the series’ signature sandworms, fans will find much to love.
This is an epic that DEMANDS to be seen on the big screen, as cinematographer Greg Fraser (Rogue One, The Mandalorian) renders every frame as a work of art in and of itself. Combining location footage, practical models, and CGI, Villeneuve and team conjure awe-inspiring sequences that serve the story, rather than the other way around, and the results are simply magnificent to behold. If ever there was an argument on whether or not the theatrical experience is dead, that discussion begins and ends with Dune.
The bottom line
Packed with jaw-droppingly beautiful visuals that make up for the somewhat lackluster acting, the new Dune is a love letter to anyone who’s read Frank Herbert’s iconic work. To everyone else, a scan of Wikipedia may be in order before stepping into the cinema.
Have you already watched Dune? Would you watch it again in the cinemas?