Dune represents one of the most cherished science fiction novels of the 20th century. But despite its passionate following, making a coherent film out of it is a big challenge for any modern filmmaker. Setting aside the novel’s epic scope that would require state-of-the-art special effects and a massive budget, the text itself is dense. It’s full of exposition, and borderline incomprehensible for all but the most diehard fans. This story is almost impossible to translate to the big screen in a way that will make sense to the casual filmgoer. So while Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious adaptation of Dune isn’t perfect, he manages to wrangle it, at long last, into something accessible for mainstream audiences. That’s about the highest compliment to anyone tackling this behemoth.
Many thousands of years in the future, people harvest spice on the desert planet of Arrakis. Thanks to its various properties, including that it aids in interstellar transport, it’s one of the most valuable raw materials in the galaxy. When Dune begins, the Emperor has just awarded House Atreides control of Arrakis. The appointment gives them profits from the sale of spice, but also the responsibility of maintaining production at a high enough level to support the needs of the Imperium. As the former rulers of Arrakis, House Harkonnen, plot to reclaim the planet, House Atreides’ heir, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), grapples with his political duties as a future duke, his Bene Gesserit training, and his destiny as the prophesied Kwisatz Haderach, a fabled super being. Needless to say, a lot’s going on.
But by beginning his version of Dune on Arrakis rather than with Paul Atreides, Villeneuve centers the planet, its people (the Fremen, known for their distinctive blue eyes), and their long history of being exploited for their resources. It provides some much needed context to the story. That their desert planet comes across as a revolving door of oppression, with different occupying forces arriving and taking what they like from the planet, makes Arrakis an allegory for many oil-producing areas in the Middle East that outsiders have perpetually used solely to make a profit. It is a shame that Villeneuve doesn’t take the opportunity to cast any Middle Eastern or North African actors in the roles of the Fremen, given the obvious Arabic and Islamic influence on Dune as a whole.
That said, the actors featured in Dune are well-suited for their roles. Timothée Chalamet as Paul, Rebecca Ferguson as his mysterious and powerful mother Jessica, and Oscar Isaac as his noble-to-a-fault father Leto are perfectly cast as the venerable House Atreides. Chalamet in particular seems to be in his element. He a way to embrace epic blockbuster filmmaking without his indie movie aura feeling out of place. Chalamet feels poised to grow into the role and evolve alongside Paul, if Villeneuve adapts the rest of Dune.
Which leads to an open question: where does this film stand if, for whatever reason, they aren’t able to continue the story? Dune feels incomplete, for obvious reasons: Villeneuve designed it as just the first part of a larger narrative. But should it still function as a standalone film? If that’s the case, then Dune lacks in some regards. There’s certainly nothing satisfying about the conclusion of this film. In a lot of ways, it’s merely a preamble of things to come. So it’s difficult to judge Dune as a finished product when we haven’t seen all of Villeneuve’s vision.
What we have seen, however, is well-executed. This, more than any other film in 2021, really deserves the biggest possible screen. The set design and CGI work are both impeccable, creating an ambitious otherworldly landscape that looks flawless. Although the film has the standard science fiction visuals of spaceships and new planets filled with a rather unappealing gray and brown color palette, there are also a number of quirky touches that make Dune more dynamic. The ships with wings that make them look like dragonflies in motion, for example, or the Fremen settlements evoking imagery of ziggurats in ancient Sumer.
Dune may come across as something less than fully realized, given the realities of the production making it just a part of a whole rather than a self-contained narrative in its own right. But all the same, it’s hard to overlook the incredible attention to detail and pure craftsmanship. Unlike many other science fiction films, which have a tendency to let special effects bog them down, making them feel rather soulless, the CGI in Dune serves the larger story. And as a result it frees the actors to create unusually well-developed and engaging characters that feel completely alive. Dune has its fair share of flaws, but it is nonetheless the most ambitious and enjoyable space epic we’ve had in ages. That’s no mean feat, considering how utterly unfilmable this story has always seemed to be.
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