It feels more and more like we live in a world that is perpetually on the brink of irrevocable calamity. Even when some progress is made on something, another aspect of society plunges into disaster. So after almost two years of a pandemic, among other nationwide and worldwide crises, I think we all need to take the time to really appreciate things that actually go right. It’s okay to feel genuinely happy about something in the world, and to bask in the joy one might feel while experiencing it.
With all that in mind, we finally have Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction novel, Dune. Needless to say, boy did this really go right. Villeneuve, our réalisateur Québécois (Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), has succeeded in a magnificent cinematic achievement. I may not have been around in May 1977, but I also can say that my experience with Dune probably wasn’t too far off from the experiences of those who first laid eyes on Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. It is the first movie in quite some time that feels like an instant classic, or dare I say, a masterpiece.
As a disclaimer, I have not actually read Herbert’s novel cover-to-cover. It is one of those books that has been sitting on my “to-be-read” list for far too long. But I think I did a good job familiarizing myself with the lore of Herbert’s world, and I can certainly speak to those who are completely unfamiliar: Villeneuve has your back. For starters, Dune only adapts the first half of the book, allowing the story and lore to breathe significantly. Villeneuve works as hard as possible not to burden the viewer with exposition dumps. All of the information is thoughtfully conveyed through the characters’ experiences throughout the story. Paul Atreides learns about Arrakis essentially from a future-timeline Sir David Attenborough, so the audience learns too. Villeneuve ensures that longtime Dune fans will marvel at the film alongside the newly introduced.
The cast Villeneuve has assembled is impressive, savvy, and thankfully rewardingly thoughtful. Nearly everyone blends into their roles with ease, bringing distinct personalities and, surely, soon-to-be iconic performances to characters that could have otherwise reverted to an indistinguishable parade of names and faces.
Timothée Chalamet is a really great Paul. Really, really good. It’s fair to say that the movie works because of him, and if the movie failed, it probably would have been on him too. Despite such a large cast, Villeneuve makes certain that Paul is at the heart of everything, he truly is the protagonist, and a deeply enchanting one at that. He carries himself like a prince would, but still has a relaxed, often rather contemplative mood that counteracts whatever emotional stiffness that could have potentially arisen. He is a fundamentally good man who holds his family to the highest standards possible, yet remains deeply suspicious and unsure of the prophetic inheritances he begins to possess over the course of his journey. He luckily has equally human parental figures: his father, Duke Leto Atreides, and his mother, Lady Jessica. Leto, played by Oscar Issac and his incredible beard, has a warm, compassionate, humble personality that creates a truly strong and convincing bond between him and his son. And Jessica, played brilliantly by Rebecca Ferguson, smartly avoids any kind of emotional obliviousness that might be present due to her being a member of the mysterious Bene Gesserit order. Despite her spiritual duties, she feels like a genuinely good mother to Paul. Ferguson overall is a surprise standout, and she delicately plays Jessica’s emotional beats with a true dramatic intelligence. There are many moments where she feels perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but not in a gimmicky way, rather due to the burdens, expectations, and failures that she incurs throughout the film. Villeneuve has said that he made a point to improve the female characters from Herbert’s novel, many of which he felt were shortchanged in the mid-20th-century book. Ferguson’s Jessica is the most successful example of this. She is revealed to be an incredibly strong individual, and the bond between her and Paul absolutely becomes the heart of the film.
The cast quickly balloons, but again, everyone has their place and makes their mark. Josh Brolin plays Gurney Halleck, the Atreides’ weaponsmaster alongside Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho (Yes, that’s his name. Don’t laugh). Both bring their characteristic “boo-yah” personalities, with Gurney being more stoic and Duncan more carefree, and yet Paul’s warm relation to both also sets them apart as equally unique and essential role models in Paul’s life. Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen, Arrakis’ native people, is played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem with the feeling of a true leader. A moment between Stilgar and Leto commands the screen as the meeting of two great, honorable men who respect each other greatly, yet fiercely guard the power they command, and those they have a responsibility to protect. And while Zendaya may not be in the film nearly as much as the marketing suggested (most of her screentime is dedicated to what essentially amounts to the best perfume commercials I’ve ever seen), her Fremen character Chani is firmly planted as an essential part of the story going forward, and her rapport with Chalamet is much anticipated.
Also of note is Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who plays so-called “judge of the change” Dr. Liet Kynes. Originally a white male in the book, Brewster slips into the part as a black woman without any trouble at all, and her surprisingly large role is, like Jessica, a surprise highlight. Villeneuve’s attempts to both diversify the cast and increase the importance of the female characters really pays off here, as the personality Brewster gives Dr. Kynes is one of the most gripping of all the characters. It is always really nice to see race-bending and gender-bending actually done right.
If there is any actor who leaves just a bit to be desired, it might be Stellan Skarsgård, whose Baron Harkonnen at times seems strangely aloof and uninterested, as if he just wanted to end the scene and go home. Then again, they are putting an acclaimed Swedish actor in about 80 pounds of prosthetics and a gigantic fat suit, so it’s to Skarsgård’s credit that we get any kind of discernible performance at all, considering his lack of, uh, mobility. One moment between the Baron and Duke Leto however, hints at what kind of greatness we might still get from Skarsgård in the sequel.
There are more characters than can be equally regarded, yet both Villeneuve and the actors portraying them work as hard as possible to make their presences felt, regardless of screen time. Dave Bautista brings his usual, yet appropriate, gruff masculinity, with an undercurrent of perpetually-simmering rage, to Beast Rabban. David Dastmalchian chills the bone with his slimy twisted mentat Piter De Vries, while Stephen McKinley Henderson brings a decidedly more fatherly and benevolent feeling to the Atreides’ loyal mentat Thufir Hawat. Chang Chen serves the role of Dr. Yueh well, not to give anything away. And finally, the great Charlotte Rampling steals her scenes, as any veteran actress would, as Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Mohiam.
It is the theatrical experience of Dune that is truly unrivalled. Villeneuve has created a transcendent sensory experience, particularly concerning the sound of the film. One could watch the movie blindfolded and still enjoy it based purely on the depth of the sound world Villeneuve has created here. Cinematographer Greig Fraser’s unequivocally gorgeous camerawork notwithstanding, it is the sound of Dune that perhaps most accurately brings Herbert’s world to life.
The immense auditory experience the film creates is only heightened by Hans Zimmer’s positively hypnotic score. Zimmer, in my view, is a composer whose work tends to swing wildly from transcendent brilliance to knuckle-dragging laziness depending on the project. Fortunately for Dune, this is easily his best work in years, probably since Man of Steel (both sci-fi films, not serendipitously, showcase Zimmer’s unrivaled talent for creating truly transportive otherworldly soundscapes). The earth-shaking sound mix blends with Zimmer’s music effortlessly, one doesn’t know when the music ends and the sounds of the environment begin, creating an indescribably lush auditory landscape that only a film of this magnitude has the narrative and emotional bandwidth to carry without collapsing under the weight of its own experiential density.
Villeneuve and his team pair these immense sounds with even bigger images. The spaceships of the Atreides, Harkonnens, and the Spacing Guild are all monstrously — almost horrifyingly — huge. With today’s cinematic marketplace being flooded with one CGI spectacle after the next, it’s incredibly impressive that Villeneuve’s visual effects wizardry results in one of the only films left in the genre that can still make the audience gawk at such mind-boggling technology. Ships that displace entire oceans, only to be swallowed by even more gargantuan spacecraft like flies. One genuinely marvels at the very notion that they can get off the ground. It seems quaint to call them spaceships at all.
It’s not just the ships, but the natural environments too, that appear to stretch into infinity, that border on the supernatural in their scope. One can practically feel the salty ocean breeze of Caladan blowing through their hair just as well as they can feel the sharp oppressive heat of the Arrakis sun, as well as its parched air and teeth-chattering nights. And of course, the iconic giant sandworms have several jaw-dropping appearances that truly live up to the potential they always had. It is the world of Dune that feels as tactile and awesomely real as any of the great sci-fi/fantasy masterpieces that have graced the silver screen over the decades.
Villeneuve’s team also deserves great credit for the obviously huge amount of labor they put into realizing Herbert’s world both faithfully and with an eye for visual distinction. Dune the book was the basis for many tropes of the genre, and yet Villeneuve skillfully avoids the trap of having Dune feel like a rip off of say, Star Wars, instead impressively making Star Wars retroactively look like a rip off of it. The design of everything, from little things like windows and furniture to more consequential visual technology like spice harvesters and personal shields, it all feels just as fresh and new as it must have back in 1965. I absolutely see Ornithopters and Heighliners proudly joining the ranks of Star Destroyers, X-Wings, and Federation saucer ships in the pantheon of iconic sci-fi vehicles and technology.
The movie is extremely dense, so I could go on for ages. I do have a word limit though (that I have probably already exceeded). Dune Part 2is tentatively slated for October 2023, and yes the film we have now does end rather abruptly. But one wants more of this world, not because of cheap marketing tricks and end credits scenes, but because Villenuve has crafted a world so evocative, that to leave it feels as though to enter back into a realm of existence far less interesting. Denis Villeneuve has certainly proven himself as perhaps the finest science-fiction director working today. Yes, sometimes things actually do go right.