Denis Villeneuve has recently established a reputation for high-minded and grand sci-fi (ARRIVAL, BLADE RUNNER 2049). However, these films also retained a hint of those with which the French Canadian established his filmmaking skill: beautifully presented films with an emotional edge (PRISONERS, SICARIO). DUNE may be his most grand and high-minded entry in the cinematic canon yet, but the relationships and emotions developed in this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s book are as dry as the desert sand we find on Arrakis.
Timothée Chalamet leads as Paul, the heir apparent to the Imperial house of Atreides on the ocean planet Caladan. The (unseen) Emperor has forcibly taken back the desert planet Arrakis from the house of Harkonnen and given it to Atreides along with responsibility for producing ‘spice’, the lucrative resource laced through the sands of the harsh and inhospitable world. Paul must adapt quickly to a hazardous political and physical situation for his family and their followers. Meanwhile, he is burdened with recurring dreams of the planet’s Indigenous people, the Fremen, and he seemingly holds a significance to the mysterious female religious group – the Bene Gesserit – to which his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) is devoted.
The imagery Villeneuve concocts when the film swings into action on Arrakis is captivating in both style and scale. As battles rage over Arrakeen, the settlement from which the Atreides rule over their new fiefdom, the sense of weight and devastation is palpable. DUNE has precision in the gargantuan. Computer-generated destruction in modern blockbusters often fails to convey the same feeling of power gained from huge sets or traditional miniature work (which would be played back slower than real-time to give the impression of large-scale movement and demolition), but a sense of weight and scale remains throughout DUNE. The continuity within and across sequences allows Villeneuve to blend the colossal warfare seamlessly with ground-level action and for the characters to interact with the world’s curiosities (such as the bizarrely wonderful Ornithopter; a combination of helicopter and winged insect, like a large metal dragonfly). When all taken together, the film manages to build the physical aspects and societal logistics of Herbert’s world with a clarity perhaps only matched in recent blockbuster history by Villeneuve’s own BLADE RUNNER 2049.
It is hard not to be in awe of the visual spectacle when the Fremen rise out of the sand to attack their opponents, when Gurney (Josh Brolin) charges into battle as an interplanetary war erupts, or when a giant sandworm makes Star Wars’ Sarlacc look like little more than a maggot. In addition, the sound – whether it be the Hans Zimmer musical accents or the visceral effects applied to ‘the voice’, a commanding paranormal tone the Bene Gesserit cultivate to compel others – gets under the skin and stays there.
“However, it is ironic that the dusty, hazard-laden, abrasive landscape DUNE builds often feels so sterile when we come to the characters inhabiting it. Despite the peril faced by Paul, Chalamet seems impassive.”
However, it is ironic that the dusty, hazard-laden, abrasive landscape DUNE builds often feels so sterile when we come to the characters inhabiting it. Despite the peril faced by Paul, Chalamet seems impassive. His reaction to unimaginable pain inflicted by the Bene Gesserit is the same studied concentration he displays when parsing his dreams or taking part in hand-to-hand combat. His slightly glaikit expression isn’t true across the board: Rebecca Ferguson’s inner conflict between fealty to her order and maternal instincts is keenly felt in her face and body language, even through the portentous dialogue; Oscar Isaac’s stoic but warmly-speaking Duke Leto conveys a sceptical but honour-bound leader; and Jason Momoa’s natural charisma comes through in Duncan Idaho’s reverence for the Fremen and fraternal affection for Paul. However, despite that trio’s best efforts with comparatively limited screentime, blank performances are not exclusive to Chalamet. Although there is little in the script for them to work with, Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgård also find little beyond surface-level malevolence in their Harkonnen leaders.
“…blank performances are not exclusive to Chalamet. Although there is little in the script for them to work with, Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgård also find little beyond surface-level malevolence in their Harkonnen leaders.”
Some of this shallowness can be ascribed to DUNE covering only part of a layered but unwieldy story (as the prominent ‘Part One’ subtitle in the opening highlights). Any thematic depth built up is terminated prematurely by the film before any resonant payoff even hints at lumbering over the heat-distorted horizon. The script and imagery also give short shrift to the obvious parallels with Middle Eastern petrostates, given that this is a world where monied overlords have historically displayed callous indifference to the Bedouin-like Fremen at best or oppressed them at worst. Any Fremen characters (except for one) are present for comically short periods, given the outsized importance they should have to some of the film’s more subtle concerns. All these Middle Eastern and Islamic elements are very much there in the film, and some will presumably rise in importance in any sequel(s), but here they merely exist. Although the film’s grand visuals protect against apathy, it also does little to create empathy with its lead character.
The awe generated means DUNE avoids sinking under the sand completely, but that same heft means neither does it glide elegantly across it. Whether this dedication to the source’s scope – to the detriment of a narratively and thematically cohesive initial film – will prove visionary or hubristic on Villeneuve’s part remains to be seen (with sequels as yet unconfirmed). Still, in its current standalone status, DUNE is an emotionally inert beauty.