Sci-Fi “Dune” Right
Issue 5, Volume 112
By Aaron Visser
I decided I would like “Dune” (2021) two years before watching it. When I heard one of my favorite directors was adapting one of my favorite novels starring the most talented working actors, I immediately marked October 2020 on my calendar. Now, after a year of COVID-related delays, the film is finally here.
Sometimes high expectations can kill an otherwise solid experience. This is not one of those times. “Dune” doesn’t just live up to its hype; it exceeds it. Denis Villenuve adapts scene after scene from the book exactly as I imagined them to be, elevating the source material with perfect casting and a barrage of beautiful visuals. No other director could have made a film so faithful to the source material so well. “Dune” definitively and masterfully adapts written work into audio and visual art.
“Dune” takes place in a future where humans have spread across the galaxy, having accessed interstellar travel through the discovery of The Spice, a hallucinogen that grants its users the ability to see across space and time. But there’s a problem: The Spice can only be found on Arrakis, a desert planet with no water, hostile natives, and half-mile-long sandworms. The story follows the noble Atreides family and their son Paul Atreidies (Timothee Chalamet) as they assume control over Arrakis and face threats far more dangerous than massive worms.
The novel, written by Frank Herbert in 1965, influenced everything from “Star Wars” (1976) to “The Matrix” (1999). Yet “Dune” manages to feel wholly original. Villenuve brings Herbert’s stunning world to life. He shoots massive spaceships, insect-like ornithopters, and sandworms with his mastery of CGI, always grounding the scene from a character’s perspective to communicate the scale and awe of these creations. Many epic shots are entirely practical, using stunning locations on Earth to depict distant planets. Cinematographer Greig Frazier clearly drew visual inspiration from the historical epic “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), which is fitting because Herbert stated it as a major influence on the novel. The viewer is treated with shot after shot of sand dunes that dwarf the characters, oceans of sand stretching out to the horizon.
The production design is just as immersive as the effects. The outfits are elaborate and utilitarian, both futuristic and realistic. Passion clearly went into every detail, from the blade of a desert crysknife to the poisoned tip of a gom jabbar needle. The backgrounds of each scene seamlessly integrate top notch set design and computer effects. To many movies, detailed world building can be a pleasant addition. To “Dune,” it is essential. The book is beloved for its meticulously crafted world, not for its characters.
The most common criticism of “Dune,” the movie and the book, is about those characters. They can feel distant, lacking relatability and normal human traits. When they speak, the dialogue can feel stilted. Herbert’s decision to write in the uncommon third person omniscient perspective contributes to this, detaching the reader from any natural point of view. However, this problem is part of “Dune’s” appeal. The characters are complex, with their true nature often mysterious. Paul, played brilliantly by Chalamet, at first seems a precocious, yet innocent teen. Reviews have criticized the Chalamet performance, saying he lacked emotion and created a hero difficult for the audience to get behind. But they’re describing the character they want Paul to be, not the character he is. Paul is much more than the Luke Skywalker everyman we expect. As the story unfolds, he reveals an inner brutality necessary for him to survive in an uncompromising world. Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Fergerson), while not exactly relatable, demonstrates agency and lethality. Fergerson manages to communicate all of Jessica’s emotional conflict found in the novel’s inner monologue merely through restrained emoting. The rest of the expansive cast nail their roles, with Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin and Stellan Skarsgård proving that they are some of cinema’s most dependable actors. And to nobody’s surprise, Jason Mamoa dominates the frame. “Dune” matches the novel’s aloof tone and enigmatic characters. Unlike other modern blockbusters, the characters aren’t competing to be the most likeable and charismatic on screen.
In many ways, Dune is the antidote to the conventional blockbuster. Fight scenes are somber ballets of death, rather than upbeat orgies of violence. The camera work is deliberate, always permitting the viewer to see everything without being confused. The pace is meditative, whether it is soaking in the beauty of a spaceship or a city or trusting the actors, direction, and music to entertain without dialogue. The score by Hans Zimmer is so wholly its own; he actually invented new instruments to generate its experimental sounds. Although it had a budget of 165 million dollars, “Dune” is a true auteur project. While the scale is immense, it feels personal.
“Dune” does resemble other blockbusters in one respect. While Villeneuve tackled deep themes of consciousness in “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) and cross-cultural communication in “Arrival” (2016), in “Dune” the only thing he tackles is adapting the novel. The environmental themes from the book are mostly lost and while questions of colonization and religion persist, the movie seems to have little to say about them. It’s too occupied making one of the best sci-fi epics of all time.