Yes, here is another film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s hallowed Dune saga. But make no mistake, it has the fingerprints of master auteur Denis Villeneuve all over it, and in ways both reverent and clever, it may finally be the definitive version.
This Dune opened surprisingly for me with Zendaya’s character Chani (who otherwise barely appears in the film) doing a voice-over explaining the plight of her people, the indigenous desert dwellers of the spice-filled Arrakis. Herbert was overt in his echoes to the Middle East, Islam, and Oil in the books, so Villeneuve cleverly calls back to his own Middle East trauma flick, the still scathingly incendiary Incendies (probably, to the masses, his least known film). It’s a bold call-back and mirror in a film full of darkness and call-backs to other works, tropes, traumas, and archetypes. Later, the film recalls the recent Taliban re-seizing of control of Kabul and Afghanistan when the brutal Harkonnen re-take every major city in Arrakis seemingly overnight.
Enough can’t be said in praise of the visuals. The special effects, set designs, lighting (or lack thereof) and costumes are meticulously designed and seamless. You feel like these worlds and the technology and architecture of them, as otherworldly as they are, could exist. The physics of it all makes sense. The gritty and realistic visual grandeur adds gravitas to the metaphysical underpinnings. The film does not get weighed down by its quasi-religious “chosen one’s journey” motif thanks to the grounding of the plot’s trippier elements (one could easily explain them away as spice-fueled highs or dreams).
Villeneuve further takes his craft to the next level with the sound design. As earlier witnessed in Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, he directs sound as if it is a character unto itself. And there is not just a music score, but a sound score. Employing the grand maestro of sound and music scoring, Hans Zimmer is a match made in the spice deserts. Zimmer’s eerie use of chanting, home-made instruments buried in sand, and only-god-knows-what else is possibly Dune’s strongest element. The sound is the spice.
The cast is as strong as one could hope for such a production. The standouts for me were Rebecca Ferguson (dare I say, worthy of supporting actress nomination here?), Oscar Isaac, and Javier Bardem (whose Stilgar conveys a warmly mysterious stoicism only an actor of Bardem’s caliber could pull off). Stelan Skarsgard was appropriately menacing and revolting as the leader of House Harkonnen, while Jason Momoa surprised me with his heroic portrayal of Duncan Idaho. In the lead, Timothee Chalamet seems small, lost and initially gives off his trademark cutesy-petulant teenager vibe, but somehow it works, and though his character arc seems violently abrupt, he pulls it off. I wasn’t expecting it even though I knew the character’s story already.
Some folks have complained of the pacing, but if you go in knowing this is a “part one” and based on a very dense series of novels, you shouldn’t have a problem. The script does a decent job with the exposition explaining much of the history through learning modules Paul studies as they arrive on Arrakis. The treatment of the giant sand worms like the shark in Jaws (you only see the rippling of the sand, like a shark’s fin, first…and there are multiple encounters before we see the full thing) makes for a nice build-up of suspense. The centerpiece of the film is the destruction of the capital city on Arrakis and an escape flight (in a helicopter designed like a firefly) through a sand storm. It’s magnificently staged, and propels the film to a strong finish. In grand Villeneuve fashion he turns a classic trope on its head and instead of starting the film “in media res” ends it “in media res.”
Early in the film, a creepy Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) demands of young Paul Atriedes to, “Tell me about your dreams.” In the end, just as Paul has seemingly found his way, Chani (Zendaya) tells him, both as a promise and warning, “This is just the beginning.”
Dream away. With Villeneuve confidently at the helm, we will follow you into the sands.