Dune is generally a well-known staple of sci-fi geekdom, its literary roots running as far back as 1965 when Frank Herbert first unleashed his tale of swashbuckling fantasy, Great Houses, and metaphors for our own Middle East thinly disguised as science fiction upon the world.
In the years since, the books have become an empire unto themselves, with close to thirty entries at present and growing (with Frank Herbert’s own son Brian picking up his father’s mantle back in 99 and continuing on to this very day). Hollywood has taken its share of stabs at translating the material into motion picture format as well; the first, and perhaps most well-known example coming in the form of David Lynch’s controversial 1984 theatrical release. The tale was retold again in 2000 in a three-part miniseries by John Harrison (later marketed as a single film). Even the first two sequels of the book series were brought to film in Harrison’s (with director Greg Yaitanes) 2003 Children of Dune.
Enter 2021’s Dune directed by and co-written Denis Villeneuve (the French Canadian whose past directorial credits include 2000’s Maelstrom, 2016’s Arrival, and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 to mention a few). With a budget of $165-million dollars, it is by far the most ambitious incarnation of the source material yet.
This last point is driven home when one realizes that the slightly-over two-and-a-half-hour film manages to tell only a little over half of the first book’s tale. Even the film proudly opens with the title “Dune: Part One” and, while sequels had yet to be green-lit when it hit screens, you have to hand it to Villeneuve for making sure job security was a part of the package. A week after its release, Dune: Part Two was confirmed with a theatrical release scheduled for October 2023.
The tale, which is actually far more complex than can be covered here, centers on young Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and concubine Lady Jessica of House Atreides and their relocation from the Earth-like planet Caladan to the inhospitable desert world of Arrakis (AKA Dune) at the behest of the Emperor himself.
In doing so, rival house and longtime Arrakis ruling body House Harkonnen get told to pack their proverbial bags. Thus is born a bitter rivalry that culminates in a violent coup shortly thereafter.
The reason everyone wants a piece of Arrakis is that it is the only known source of a mineral known as spice – a substance that extends human vitality (while making users’ eyes glow blue) and a critical ingredient for interstellar travel.
Much like the 2000 incarnation of the source material, this latest version certainly goes out of its way to make the viewer feel like the narrative is in no hurry. Scenes aren’t afraid to hold well after expected cuts to emphasize character conflict, reflection, and appreciation for scenic vistas. Couple all of these nuances to a sweeping score by legendary composer Hans Zimmer and the experience is more reminiscent of those classics from late 80s cinema than to today’s penchant for dizzying fast cuts and computer-generated overload (looking at you, Michael Bay).
Speaking of scenic vistas, let it never be said a film set primarily in the desert must be drab. The combination of on-location filming, gorgeous set designs and seamless integration with the computer-generated overlap all results in a finished product that is a treat to behold visually. Greig Fraser’s slow tracking, wide angled cinemetography further enhances the sense of scope.
Casting is spectacular with newcomer Timothée Chalamet doing the Paul Atreides character arc from timid but goodhearted son of royalty to potential planet-leading revolutionary justice. Oscar Issac is equally competent as the just Duke Leto. Proving he is more than just a finger-snapping, purple-headed alien, Josh Brolin delivers a surprisingly excellent portrayal of Paul’s mentor and chief military officer of House Atreides.
On the other side of the coin, Jason Momoa further proves he is only capable of playing, well, Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho in a role that has been gracefully extended in this interpretation of the material.
Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson brings a sophisticated, slightly subservient take to the Lady Jessica mythos in a role that manages to balance her being a victim and badass in nearly equal measure. Just don’t get hung up on the fact that in reality her thirty-eight years of age and Timothée Chalamet’s twenty-five would mean our pal Duke Leto doesn’t waste much time when he finds a concubine he likes.
All in all, 2021’s Dune is a gorgeous piece of film (do we have a word yet for digital movies- a gorgeous piece of data?). It takes the time-proven source material and delivers it in a gorgeous, deliberate, sweeping package that, in a lot of ways, feels very unlike the current trends in cinema. In the best possible way, of course. Is it perfect? Well, no. The fact that it essentially (and unapologetically) lacks an ending and somehow manages, in this, the golden age of special effect potential, to do away with showing the otherworldly Guild Navigators, may be considered detractors to some.
However, the experience is certainly epic in a way that feels worthy of the material upon which it’s based. Perhaps the biggest takeaway, given the fact that it managed in only a few days after release to not only recoup all of its budget but approach a $50-million profit, is that the world still craves thought-provoking science fiction. In an era where Hollywood continues to take classic franchise after classic franchise and desecrate them with hollow, woke-movement-infested, CG-heavy cash grabs, Denis Villeneuve reminds the industry that the essence of good storytelling is timeless.