“Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake.”
Frank Herbert’s Dune novels have been remarked to be “unadaptable”, both due to the breadth of content with the series’ lore and narrative, and to the passionate insistence of some of the novels’ most die-hard fans that no part of the story can be left out and have the narrative still function. Despite this, numerous adaptations of various parts of the book series already exist; held in varying regard by Dune fans. Hopes were high in late 2016 when Denis Villeneuve stated that he wished to adapt the series for a new film; raised even higher when Brian Herbert (son of Frank and author of the later Dune books) announced that Villeneuve would be heading up the new project. Has his ambition delivered on the anticipation?
In the year 10191; Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Issac) has been given dominion over the desert planet Arrakis by Emperor Shaddam Corino IV; replacing Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) as its steward, and affording him dominion over an invaluable resource called spice, which is required for safe and effective space travel. The Duke leaves Caladan with his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) of the Bene Gesserit, his son and heir Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet; and moves with his forces to the city of Arrakeen to begin his stewardship; but it quickly becomes clear that all is not what it seems on Arrakis…
The cast of Dune is expansive and impressive, but before they have a chance to impress; Villeneuve’s world building sets the scene for the cast to bring their talents. The introductory sequence, narrated by Chani (Zendaya); a member of Arrakis’ indigenous Fremen, gives Villeneuve the opportunity to quickly demonstrate the scope of his effort before we even enter the central narrative. Arrakis is an extremely dangerous, arid terrain; mined for spice by huge behemoth machinery and guarded by brutality at the hands of House Harkonnen’s forces, led by Beast Raban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista). Even though this sequence shows House Harkonnen withdrawing from the planet; the sheer scale of the mining equipment, the forces present on the planet, and the ships that they depart in is a perfect introduction into how enormous this film is going to be. By showing us Arrakis before anything else, Villeneuve also allows us to understand how tough the transition for House Atreides is going to be before we even meet them; as the next shot of an ornate mansion, nestled in greenery atop a cliff facing the sea on Caladan could not present a more striking opposing image to that of the sandstorm-buffeted desert world we have been shown mere moments before. The other planets we see, though our visits are brief, also work in opposition to what we have already seen; with the Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi prime being a dark, foreboding world of rock and imposing structures. The worlds reflect the personalities of those who live upon them; with only Arrakis serving as hostile to all those who set foot on it to varying degrees.
The vehicles of Dune also carry personality with them as well as being effective in demonstrating scale. The spaceships are enormous; with cold, angular, Brutalist designs that demonstrate function above aesthetics; though even they are dwarfed by the huge Space Guild ships that are seen holding orbit around the various worlds. More personality is given to smaller craft; with the Ornithopter being the true star of Dune’s vehicular showing; a type of light aircraft that flies by flapping a series of narrow wings together and looks like a giant mechanical dragonfly. In a piece where most of the other vehicles have a cold, abrasive personality; having a craft laden with such a warm and fun personality is welcome; and the scenes where they are seen in flight leaves one wondering whether such a craft is even technically viable – though quick research reveals that it is, and now I wonder why nobody has bothered to build one for themselves. Regardless, these vehicles work best when seen against the huge, desolate sandscapes of Arrakis; and Villeneuve does well to use them to highlight the unforgiving nature of the terrain; with plenty of huge, sweeping shots designed to demonstrate the beautiful, lonely planet that the Atreides find themselves inhabiting.
This film is backed by an incredible score from Hans Zimmer, who has risen to the challenge of soundtracking this ambitious science fiction epic with a skill and gusto that one could only expect from a composer of his status. Personal musical stings are well thought out and executed, such as the use of bagpipes from House Atreides, though it is with the landscapes of Arrakis where Zimmer is at his best here. The sound of the desert has perhaps never been better represented through music, with the score at its best when Zimmer makes heavy use of deep, booming base; sending a sound that is not satisfied to simply stimulate the audience’s ears; but instead vibrates throughout the viewer’s entire body in a way that brings a deep, emotional connection to the dangers of the desert, tying the audience to the risk that vibration gives to those who cross the sands on foot…
Villeneuve appears to have opted to limit his use of CGI effects where possible for this piece; and while they are still prevalent throughout a lot of the film (one does not simply wait for a sandstorm to film a scene that requires one), they mostly are at their most effective on the smaller scale. Individual defensive shields adorn the soldiers of Dune, and during the more bombastic action sequences, the flashing of blue and red light around the troops like a reactive aura helps the audience gain a more immediate understanding of who is fighting well and who is falling in battle. I say that the smaller scale is mostly the most effective as there is one particular instance where the CGI effects stand out, and that is the famous Arrakis sand-worms. These giant monsters are revealed slowly throughout the film; and when we finally see one raised fully above the sands; the sheer immensity of it fills the screen with an impact that I can’t remember any other film creating. The impartial violence of the sand-worms is breathtaking, and the scope of their destructive power is established early and reinforced multiple times; but their presence is not over-used, and the threat is maintained all the way through this piece.
With the universe thoroughly established; Villeneuve carefully places an excellent cast amongst the danger. While this is an ensemble piece; there’s no doubt that Paul and Lady Jessica are at the heart of this story, and Chalamet and Ferguson do an excellent job of shouldering the narrative. Chalamet in particular does excellent work here; Paul is being bombarded with unexpected life-changing information pretty much from the start of the film, and he continues to take it on board and rise to each challenge with a surprising level of grace and maturity, for the most part. His upbringing as both the son of a duke and the son of a sister of the Bene Gesserit (who are essentially, for want of a better term, witches) is key to the central narrative; and it allows for Duke Atreides and Lady Jessica to impart wisdom and guidance on him in equal measure. Isaac and Ferguson make for a powerful couple, and they sell their relationship well; alongside their higher responsibilities within the plot. Lady Jessica’s description as a concubine does not do justice to the strength which the character possesses, and Ferguson’s strength of will is in full force for Dune, with her experience in monarchy-based dramas coming into play as well. Ferguson, Isaac and Chalamet all have excellent chemistry with each other; and that chemistry is extended beyond to the Duke’s closest aides in Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin); both of whom are skilled military operatives at the service of the Duke, but also demonstrated to have a deeper personal connection with the Atreides family as a whole. Idaho in particular is leant upon for the majority of the levity in what is quite a serious film; though he is not the only one who gets some funnier lines. While the occasional comedic input is certainly welcome; the gravitas of Dune is not discouraging; in fact, the film is all the better for taking its source material seriously, and the more refined tone with which it treats its characters is a welcome change amongst a release schedule filled with quips and one-liners, and is tonally appropriate for the nature of the story which is being presented. Brolin and Mamoa also get chances to show off their physical flair; which once again lends itself directly into the overarching narrative in an impressive fashion – no movement is wasted when Villeneuve is behind the camera.
House Atreides is not the only group who have a strong showing; the Harkonnens cut an imposing presence, with David Dastmalchian embodying the traditional role of the snivelling advisor in Petir De Vries, paralleling with the heavily imposing nature of Skarsgård and Bautista as the Harkonnen men. While most of the rest of the supporting cast get a much more brief time on screen; Zendaya, Javier Bardem and Babs Olusanmokun all shine as our primary introduction to the Fremen – and special mention must go to a practically unrecognizable Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit; who arrives early in the narrative and presents an impressively intimidating character who stands tall before both House Atreides and House Harkonnen at various points, and commands the screen in an impressive way during her time on it. I don’t know if her character would be due to show up in the next installment based on the novels (as I have not read them), but I sincerely hope so, as I feel like Rampling has a lot more to give us out of Mohiam.
Denis Villenueve’s Dune is a sweeping, ambitious science fiction epic that takes time and care over its source material. The central cast is performing at their best, with Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson putting in some particularly strong turns; and a supporting cast who are utilised succinctly and effectively. With impressive landscapes, tight world-building and an incredible score from Hans Zimmer; Dune is a film which could well go down in history as an essential piece of science fiction cinema; especially if Villenueve sticks the landing with the sequel…