Oscar nominee Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) directs Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ Dune, the big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal bestseller of the same name.
Review by Tim Robins
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is awesome. That is all you really need to know – but here are about 1500 more words on one of the most eagerly-awaited films since COVID-19 drove audiences away from the cinema…
In the United States, Dune has also been released on HBO Max, but do yourself a favour and hunt down the biggest screen you can find – because the film compels immersion in its created universe.
Admittedly, the film is awesomely slow-paced, and your body will feel every minute of it, especially your bladder, so be warned – if you do head to your nearest art house or multiplex to see Dune, then cut back on the in-cinema drinks and pace yourself. But although it feels long it is never boringly so: the pace is a necessity. The script gradually explains the universe through dialogue, while the cast compels your interest in the emotional core of the plot.
Timothée Chalmet plays Paul Atriedies, who must escape the forces of the Galactic Emperor by fleeing into a desert of the planet Arrakis, seeking out the desert-dwelling Fremen, who believe Paul to be a prophesied messiah destined to lead them to victory over their Harkonnen oppressors. Chalmet has the perfect face to play the lead in our 21st century – he appears androgynous, shifting between male and female depending on the shot. He plays Atredies as a suitably conflicted character, trying to grasp control of events through fantasies of power, while becoming slowly aware that his destiny is shaped by the forces of prophecy and the political aims of the Bene Gesserit, a religious order working behind the scenes to manipulate the course of history.
Villeneuve juxtaposes landscape shots with close-ups of the cast, allowing them to carry the emotional heart of scenes. Rebecca Ferguson plays Jessica Atreidies, Paul’s mother and concubine of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). Charlotte Rampling plays the Reverend Mother Mohiam, another member of Paul’s mother’s sect vying for control of him, and proves suitably scary, her face hidden behind a net veil, while Ferguson’s fears and hopes for her son are made evident in every frame. The performances are surprisingly subtle, considering the caricature nature of the story.
Stellan Skarsgård (Baron Vladimir Harkonnen) and Dave Bautista (Raab Harkonnen, one of the Baron’s sons) possess a sculptural quality; there is almost no need to have the actors say a word. One look at their faces, and we get what they are about. Exemplary casting decisions lay the story bare.
Dune is based on the 1965 Nebula and Hugo award-winning novel by Frank Herbert, the novel focusing on the desert world of Arrakis, otherwise known as Dune, and its inhabitants, notably gigantic sandworms and the desert population of Fremen. The central conflict between House Harkonnen (the baddies) and House Atreides (the goodies) is a battle over the desert’s resource – a drug called ‘Spice’, whose addicts are granted longevity and, in the hands of the intergalactic Guild, grants the ability to navigate warped space-time, and so make possible interstellar travel and the Galactic Empire.
Herbert’s influences included Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, itself currently part of the line-up on Apple TV+, and Herbert’s own fascination with ecology, specifically attempts to stabilise Oregon’s sand dunes. Herbert also drew on what now are regarded as some fairly dodgy tropes, particularly the representation of the Fremen culture, which draws on the Orientalist traditions of depicting the Arab world as an enigmatic ‘other’ to the ‘rational’ West. There is, for example, colonialist talk of Paul’s friend and trainer Duncan Idaho having ‘gone native’ while living with the Fremen. This is only compounded by using women characters as embodiments of an enigma, a world that protagonist Paul Atreidies must come to know.
However, of particular interest is Herbert’s questioning and critical view of the role of his hero, who is destined to be hailed as a messiah and lead many of his followers to their deaths. Other than this, Dune is an elaborate fairy tale of Dukes, Lords and Princesses, courtly intrigue and suspect religions – all given a fascistic edge. Like many fantasies, the story entertains by allowing readers and audiences to hob-nob among the movers and shakers of the galaxy even if most of its characters are creepy, weird and not exactly likable.
I’m not sure that many of today’s cinema audience will be familiar with the novels or the attempts to bring it to the small and big screen, but Chris Hallam has detailed these elsewhere on downthetubes, including the well-received 2000 TV mini-series and the earlier film adaptation by David Lynch. It’s also been adapted into comics, these tying in with both the 1984 and this movie release. For audiences unacquainted with any of these iterations, the story is easily placed alongside Game of Thrones or Robert Graves novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God – and is an obvious source for some of the Star Wars mythos. In George Lucas’ universe, the Jedi have been awaiting the birth of one who will bring balance to the Force. In Dune, the Bene Gesserit have instituted a eugenic programme to produce the so-called “Kwisatz Haderach”, a human with the power to embody the collective consciousness of all space and time to save the galaxy from chaos.
Where Lynch’s movie seemed, however wrongly, to be derivative of Star Wars, Villeneuve’s production benefits from avoiding the worst excesses of that SF franchise, post Return of the Jedi. As a friend said to me, “Dune is Star Wars for adults”.
Villeneuve’s take on the Dune space-opera is a masterpiece of sound and vision. The music and sound design cement the film’s locations, drive and clarify the narrative and define the characters. Hans Zimmer’s music underscore’s Herbert’s orientalist theme with a mixture of choral music in the Western Christian tradition, and ambient Middle Eastern chanting, as if calling the audience to prayer. Herbert’s eclectic pick and mix future is embodied in found sounds and the eardrum-shattering drone of bagpipes, the latter provided by 30 Highland Pipers. The score also has an early nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s use of György Ligeti’s tonal, choral compositions. The reference is appropriate, because Villeneuve’s Dune is nothing less than monumental, if not quite monolithic.
This film is a vision of the distant future viewed through a ‘brutalist’ eye. Spaceships descending to Dune’s surface often resemble gigantic, concrete-clad bunkers. (The artwork of illustrator Chris Foss, who was involved in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s earlier attempt to bring Dune to the big screen, is still influential here, just as it was for Star Wars). When the Emperor’s shock troops, the Sardaukar, attack House Atreides on Akkaris, it is as if the film drops the South Bank Centre on the beachhead.
The direction dramatises the monumental scale of things through horizontal compositions. People gather on what appears to be a horizon – but is merely the foreground of the frame as gigantic objects descend or rise in the background. An emphasis on horizontal design continues through to the rooms, windows and decoration. Paul Atredies studies Dune’s history while seated in front of a gigantic, carved mural of a sandworm.
Commenting on the scene in which Atreides’s humanity is tested by the Bene Gesserit’s Reverend Mother, Villeneuve notes that the her chair is designed to make her look like a chess piece, and the director returns to this motif elsewhere in the film. At first, for example, the ships of House Atreides look like chess pieces being placed on a board. It’s the same, too, for the Sardaukan warriors, who eerily descend to the desert battlefield, taking their place as if pawns in a chess game. When representatives of the Emperor arrive to formally hand the prefecture of Dune to Duke Leto Atreides, many of the delegates are rendered faceless by their helmets filled, we assume, with clouds of spice. It is part of the mythology of chess that pieces are usually blank, to conform to the Islamic faith.
Dune is an intelligent movie that respects the audience’s intelligence. It is not a film that commands you to follow the intricacies of the plot, although you will be more than able to do this thanks to explanatory dialogue (yes, just like Lynch, Villeneuve feels the necessity for an introductory narration). Instead, Dune is an experience. Its many arresting images of Paul, for example, such as when standing alone, or framed by the mouth of a Sand Worm as if observed by a colossal eye; or a small droplet of water running down the ear of a tiny desert mouse, a Maud’ Dib, the name Paul will choose as his own. And you are not likely to forget the suspense of sequences such as Paul undertaking the deadly Gom Jabbar test and our first sight of a sandworm attack.
Sit back and let the film share the experience of another world. As I left the cinema, I felt like I’d been on Dune. My only regret was part one wasn’t immediately followed by part two, coming in 2023, with a suitable intermission for a toilet break and perhaps a trip to the nearest watering hole.
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Willis E. McNelly interviews Frank Herbert on 3rd February 1969 at Herbert’s house.
Hans Zimmer’s music for Dune
• DUNE Official Soundtrack | Dune: The Dune Sketchbook (Music From the Soundtrack) | The Art and Soul of Dune Official Soundtrack (AmazonUK Affiliate Links)
Dune Novels and More
• Dune by Frank Herbert – the novel and more (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)
• Dune 2021 Graphic Novels (AmazonUK Affiliate Links)
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The Cast and Crew
Dune stars Oscar nominee 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, joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe next year as Moon Knight); Oscar nominee 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”); Chang Chen (“Mr. Long,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”); David Dastmalchian (“Blade Runner 2049,” “The Dark Knight”); Sharon Duncan-Brewster (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Netflix’s “Sex Education”); with Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years,” “Assassin’s Creed”); with Jason Momoa (“Aquaman,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones”); and Oscar winner Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men,” “Skyfall”).
Villeneuve directed Dune from a screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Villeneuve and Eric Roth based on the novel of the same name written by Frank Herbert. Villeneuve also produced the film with Mary Parent, Cale Boyter and Joe Caracciolo, Jr.
The executive producers are Tanya Lapointe, Joshua Grode, Herbert W. Gains, Jon Spaihts, Thomas Tull, Brian Herbert, Byron Merritt and Kim Herbert.