Denis Villeneuve's ambitious adaptation is a true achievement
“Dune” by Frank Herbert is an adaptation that has broken many of the best cinematic minds. In the 1970s Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted an adaptation with Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali in the cast, but that fell through. Ridley Scott, after his success with Alien (1979) was another director who attempted to adapt the space epic, but chose to move to the “simpler” Blade Runner (1982). David Lynch actually was able to start shooting material, but the lack of creative freedom forced him to quit before the film was finished, and the studio cut together the underwhelming product of Dune (1984). Dennis Villeneuve is the latest brave soul to step forward to this unwieldy material.
Dune (2021) is the futuristic interplanetary story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the son of a noble family. When the Atreides family is tasked with administrating the desert planet of Arrakis by the galactic empire, tensions ensue. Arrakis’ local population resent being colonized and exploited; Arrakis is known for its extremely valuable spice, which the empire harvests, destroying the environment of the locals. Paul begins to have dreams and visions of a girl in Arrakis (Zendaya) and begins to see signs that he might be destined for something special.
The plot summary is my best attempt to keep some mystery for newcomers to this story, while also not getting bogged down in the worldbuilding. Herbert’s novel was an encyclopedia of politics, history, and cultures that he created from scratch. The context of such worldbuilding will no doubt remind many of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” or more recently of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (the Game of Thrones (2011-2019) source material). Villeneuve does well to not become to engrossed in the intricate details of the universe either. His Dune drops us into the middle of this foreign world (no pun intended) where we viewers are tasked with piecing things together ourselves. This is appreciated, in lieu of over-explanations and endless voice overs walking us through everything.
Villeneuve demonstrates once again his capabilities of telling visually stunning stories. His cinematography and sense of atmosphere are spot on again. His work on Bladerunner 2049 (2017) is clearly reflected in his design of each aspect of this new universe; taking genre aspects that have been taken for granted (space suits, futuristic homes, spaceships) and bringing original new takes. Villeneuve’s greatest triumph is in his ability to create a sense of scale in Dune. There is an obsession in the film with showing the enormity of certain narrative objects; this is achieved with great effect with impressive visual effects, spot on sound design, and an expertly composed Hans Zimmer score.
This version of Dune also has an embarrassment of riches in its cast. Each supporting player has accustomed viewers to seeing them as leads; the result of their lineup in Dune is almost blinding. You even have the likes of Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, and Charlotte Rampling playing bit characters, yet making their presence felt. This is perhaps Villeneuve’s other great achievement with this adaptation: a controlled balance. Time is doled out well to each character so that they are given room to grow. Villeneuve’s direction also prevents any of his performers from falling into monotone performances, sometimes pushing certain actors to reaches viewers had not seen from them before.
Villeneuve’s greatest weakness might be that he lingers vainly over many of his scenes. Some establishing shots can drag on, scenes are stretched to their limit, and some sequences dangerously approach redundancy. This is particularly felt given the length of the film (over two and a half hours). Dune takes a lot of energy to watch for newcomers to this world; they must be laser focused to keep up with House names, planets, and political dynamics for the entirety of the long runtime. With trimming of some of the long (but beautiful) scenes, the viewing could have required less stamina.
Many will be disappointed with Dune’s ending, as it reveals the secret to Villeneuve’s successful adaptation: he split the book in two. We shall be getting a “Part 2” sometime in the future if this film rakes in money. As it stands, the conclusion can be anti-climactic and frustrating for those who had been putting much energy at following the subtleties around the plot. Nevertheless, Dune is a visually and technically stunning film; the story, while complex, is effectively engrossing. Villeneuve can now claim to have domesticated (half) the beast that had broken so many legends of the past.