When it comes to works of the science fiction pantheon, one-story reigns supreme, the masterwork that is Frank Herbert’s all-inspiring Dune. Now this story of a young man’s rise to power on the edge of the known universe is brought to the canvas of the silver screen by filmmaking genius Denis Villeneuve. And the resulting picture is nothing short of an extraordinary vision.
In the far future of humanity, Duke Leto Atreides accepts the stewardship of the dangerous desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, the only source of the most valuable substance in the universe, “melange” (also called “spice”), a drug that extends human life, provides superhuman levels of thought, and makes faster-than-light travel practical. Though Leto knows the opportunity is an intricate trap set by his enemies, he takes his Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica, young son and heir Paul, and most trusted advisors to Arrakis. Leto takes control of the spice mining operation, which is made perilous by the presence of giant sandworms. A bitter betrayal leads Paul and Jessica to the Fremen, natives of Arrakis who live in the deep desert.
For Denis Villeneuve adapting Frank Herbet’s Dune to the silver screen has been the realisation of a childhood dream come true. Since he first read this book at the age of thirteen, Villeneuve has wanted nothing more than to see this epic story brought to the big screen. And now more than 40 years later he has achieved it. And what a dream it is. Every single frame of this film is lavished with detail, and the crispness of the imagery pulls you ever deeper and deeper into the narrative that unfolds before you. It’s this attention to detail that makes all the difference with Dune and Villeneuve’s knowledge of the subject matter and his narrative’s protagonist, Paul Atreides serves him well as a director.
Watching Dune I felt like I had almost slipped inside a dream. You are pulled deeper and deeper into this otherworldly narrative and are transported to a place beyond anything you could have ever imagined. That place. Arrakis. Also known as Dune. Home to the Spice Melange, the most precious substance in the universe and which makes stewardship of Arrakis both a coveted and dangerous task. In terms of its narrative flow, Dune feels both like a complete film, but also like the first act of a greater story. Those familiar with the book will understand my thoughts here, and this is a story you certainly want to see expanded further as we see Paul Atreides come into his great power.
Villeneuve gives Dune such incredible detail, and with a perfect combination of images and sound, the building blocks of cinema, he truly brings this picture to life. Both the cinematography of Greig Fraser and the music of Hans Zimmer result in the monumental feat of cinema that we witness. Fraser’s eye results in beautiful images that capture both the harshness and beauty of the Arrakis landscape. His images are gorgeously crisp thanks to the IMAX cameras used to capture the film, and you feel like you are literally standing on the surface of Arrakis and are in a truly alien space. Zimmer’s score adds to the otherworldly nature of the film thanks to its combination of percussion sounds and the extremity of the human voice and the resulting sound is something, unlike anything you could claim to have heard of and adds a sense of operatic majesty to the narrative.
Front and centre in Dune is rising star Timothée Chalamet as the narrative’s central character Paul Atreides. And Chalamet is a complete revelation in the part. As a performer, Chalamet is quickly being lauded as one of the best talents of his generation and this power to bring characters to life on-screen shows through in his performance here as Paul. Bringing a sense of youthful angst alongside a dark sensibility, Chalamet completely transforms into Paul and you peer inside the mind and presence of this hero in the making. Chalamet’s Paul is a nobleman, born and raised to the promise of great power, but he is questioning his future, and strange dreams and the promise of a new world to explore give him pause and trouble him deeply. Via Chalamet’s performance, you are pulled deeper into his mindset as Paul and his’ is a fascinating character to explore.
Through Dune’s narrative, we see Paul grow and evolve, but it is only when disaster strikes that his character is tested and his strange dreams are brought more into focus as destiny wraps her hands around him. Chalamet brings a sincere and at the same time almost dangerous commitment to the role of Paul. He showcases a character who is both a good man, but who also has the shade of a tyrant in him. It is clear that his destiny and visions trouble him, and he has much to learn from the desert itself. We are seeing the first arc of Paul’s character here in Dune and I feel like we still have so much of him to see grow.
Standing next to Chalamet and providing him with a key sense of guidance in Dune is Rebecca Ferguson as his mother Lady Jessica, concubine to Paul’s father Duke Leto Atreides and a sister of the Bene Gesserit. Best described as half noblewoman, half priestess, Ferguson gives Lady Jessica a strict sense of love and duty. She is devoted to her husband and son but is also allegiant to her sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, and the workings of Dune’s narrative test her to her limits. Like Chalamet, Ferguson’s portrayal of Lady Jessica is transformative, and she is incredibly important to Paul’s character development within Dune. Lady Jessica also proves herself a cunning and deadly warrior, and Ferguson marks herself out as a woman not to be messed with.
Completing the family dynamic of the House of Atreides is Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, the father to Paul, husband to Lady Jessica and now governer of Arrakis on the Emporer’s command. Isaac brings a strong sense of leadership and duty to his role as Duke Leto and there is a real royalty to his actions. Like any king or general, he is a man who is used to being in control and who has a massive level of power and respect at his control. But he is not shut off from his feelings and duty as a father and he brings a great sense of understanding and guidance to his interactions with Chalamet’s Paul. Isaac cuts an impressive figure as Duke Leto and he completely commands every scene in which he stands.
But the key to every story is its villain, and Dune possesses one of the most monstrous in the form of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen who is portrayed with fierce sadism by Stellan Skarsgård. As The Baron, Skarsgård is a hulking monster of a character who is more than happy to satisfy his chilling needs and who possesses zero empathy and who only possesses a ravenous, gluttonous desire for total power. Through the amazing artistry of his prosthetic make-up, he exists as this cruel and uncompromising character, and his mere presence is certain to send a chill down your spine.
Dune is a movie that is told more through imagery over dialogue and the world that is brought before your eyes is something that audiences can truly bask in. Cinematography, costuming, production design, art direction, sound design and score all combine to build an incredible canvas for this narrative to be brought to life on. And it’s very easy to get caught up in. This story may be gigantic, but due to Villeneuve’s direction, it moves at a quick pace. Villeneuve brings plenty of lethal action to the big screen thanks to Josh Brolin’s war master Gurney Halleck and Jason Momoa’s swordmaster Duncan Idaho crossing blades with the armies of the Harkonnen, and the action that unfolds is sure to spike your adrenal gland.
While we are only at the start of Paul’s journey, we see the thematic building blocks that will come to define the narrative of Dune presented to us by Villeneuve clearly in this film. Ideas related to destiny, power, politics, religion, ecology and the heroes journey are all explored in this first chapter of the story and it’s interesting to see how Villeneuve brings them to life on screen.
One of my favourite moments in the film is the juxtaposition of Paul’s last moments on his lush homeworld of Caladen; a planet of vast oceans and mountain ranges that is then suddenly spliced with the burning heat of the desert world of Arrakis. It’s beautifully shot and sets up the path that our hero is to follow. Another sublime moment is Paul’s first interaction with the Spice Melange and its hallucinogenic effects which amplify his visions and tease the audience of moments to come. It is a beautiful scene to behold and grounds the audience in this story and the power of the spice and therefore its importance in this galactic spanning empire. It’s moments like these that truly mark Dune out as a film of great cinematic significance and the audience will be left awe-struck with the images that they witness.
Dune is a story of immense scope, power and is simply a magnificent achievement of cinema. It is a vision of science fiction beyond anything you could have imagined and audiences are sure to bask in its glory. Dune is simply incredible to behold and it must be seen on the biggest screen possible for the spice must flow.
Image: Warner Brothers Pictures