Long thought to be unfilmable, Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, Dune, has been one of the toughest nuts to crack for Hollywood since the novel was released. Attempting to make his adaptation in the 1970’s, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was unsuccessful in getting that project off the ground — although that story would go on to be told in the terrific documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune. David Lynch famously made his big-screen adaptation in 1984 and was a notorious misfire with Lynch himself disowning the film, even despite that Toto score. With endless names come-and-gone over the years attempting to crack the uncrackable, the task would eventually end up in the hands of Oscar-nominated auteur Denis Villeneuve.
After managing to do the unthinkable in crafting a near-perfect follow up to Blade Runner, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear Villeneuve has managed to achieve what David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky couldn’t do; apologies to those men. Dune is a dense, grand fusion of aural and visual thrills. In fact, Villeneuve evokes such a constant state of awe, it’s hard to feel much of anything else.
Set in the far, far future year of 10,191, Duke Leto of the House Atreides (Oscar Isaac), accepts the stewardship of the dangerous desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, the only planet to contain the valuable substance known as “spice” which is not only critical to advanced space travel, but can also extend human life and give superhuman-levels of mental strength. Paul (Timothee Chalamet), the heir to House Atreides, is plagued with visions — or, dreams, as he calls them — of his future, particularly the steely blue eyes of a mysterious young woman, played by Zendaya. As he travels to Arrakis. his visions begin to become more apparent and foresee a prophecy with him at the center of it all.
Dune is clearly such a massive undertaking, it’s an accomplishment in of itself the film exists at all. Given he was able to follow-up the classic Blade Runner with a sequel that arguably surpassed it in Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve proves he’s the perfect fit for the material as the cerebral lore mixed with cinematic spectacle is in the auteur’s wheelhouse. Despite adapting the novel that heavily influenced the likes of Star Wars, Villeneuve creates an immersive world so unique and singular, the sense of awe from experiencing new worlds, creatures — hello, Sandworms — and jaw-dropping images, brought to life by DP Greig Fraser, never ceases throughout the 155 minute runtime.
Taking marks from filmmakers such as David Lean, Dune feels like a classic Hollywood spectacle, not just from its extensive ensemble cast and grand scale, but in its ambitions as being more than just piece of popcorn entertainment. Herbert’s novel, written in 1965 and whose themes are just as significant today, is an operatic sci-fi tale of religion, destiny, politics, and the result of endless imperialism. Villeneuve’s majestic direction allows these themes to resonate through the material, instead of cramming it down our throats. Arrakis is a planet torn apart by authoritarianism and imperialistic forces, and despite Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto proclaiming to his son that things will be different under his rule, the well-oiled machine keeps chugging along. Dune feels like one of the few modern blockbusters that, despite its number of action sequences, feels like an anti-war picture.
The brutalist House Harkonnen, led by the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard, whose otherworldly appearance haunts the screen under pounds of make-up and first-rate prosthetics), are an intimidating presence, despite the likes of Dave Bautista and David Dastmalchian getting mere minutes of screen-time. As the young, conflicted hero with a messiah complex, Timothee Chalamet brings a truth to his self-doubt that resonates off the screen. Rebecca Ferguson does expectedly great work as Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, whose conflicted emotions of what her son is destined to become is the films biggest sense of humanity. Jason Momoa further explores new shades of charism as the loyal solider to House Atreides with the forever awesome name of Duncan Idaho. Oscar Isaac is rather spot-on casting as Paul’s father, the well-meaning Duke, as is Josh Brolin — re-uniting with Villeneuve after 2015’s Sicario — as the Duke’s warrior/weapons master with a knack for poetry, Gurney Halleck. The all-star ensemble cast is one of the more impressive assemblies of stars in a recent picture this ambitious and grand.
Dune‘s hypnotic filmmaking is further enhanced by an absolutely thunderous sound mix. The intricate details within the sound design is an absolute must to experience on the big screen. Legendary composer Hans Zimmer’s transcendent score rattles your ear drums with booming drums and sweeping orchestras. The experimental usage of synths paired with choirs and a melody that sounds vaguely like a warrior chant adds an alien feel to the tone, like you’re hearing what music can sound like thousands of years from now. It’s some of the Oscar-winner’s finest works to date.
In strange fashion, the sense of awe is so staggering and unrelenting, it practically becomes one-note. The sheer imagination brought to life can really detract from the emotional core of the film. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 managed to balance it’s austere exterior with subtle character depth and a deep emphasis on finding humanity. With Dune, Villeneuve doesn’t create such intimate depth, with Paul’s journey of discovery feeling emotionally distant.
Despite wisely keeping the title off of marketing, the film’s opening titles read Dune: Part One, and it most certainly is. As a standalone piece of cinema, this is incomplete. Entire subplots and character arcs are unresolved and the fates of several characters remain questions as the film doesn’t reach so much of a climax, as it does an intermission point. The last line uttered by a character is literally “this is just the beginning”, so although prospects for a Part Two are heavily in the filmmakers favor, it will be a real gut-punch to see this story not get it’s much-needed conclusion.
Overwhelming is the word I can use to most accurately describe Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. While it doesn’t engage the heart as thoroughly as it does the senses, this is one half of an astounding cinematic odyssey that sits among the pinnacle of modern studio filmmaking. Find yourself the best, loudest screen in your area, and allow Denis Villeneuve to transport you to a new cinematic frontier.