written by: Luke Socie
Denis Villeneuve has proven himself to be one of the greatest science fiction directors of the last few years. His films contain a palpable atmosphere that draws in the viewer and leaves them lost in the strange world on screen. Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 were critical successes but in hindsight,
they all seem like stepping stones to Villeneuve’s real goal: adapting the unadaptable Dune.
For the uninitiated, Dune is a novel written in 1965 by Frank Herbert. It is widely considered to be the greatest piece of science fiction literature of all time, being compared to Lord of the Rings in its scale and influence. It follows the young Paul Atreides, heir to the powerful House Atreides, as his family moves to the desolate and dangerous desert planet of Arrakis in order to capitalize on the valuable “spice melange” that is harvested there. Meanwhile, the equally powerful House Harkonnen aligns with the brutal Sardaukar and plans to sabotage them. And right underneath their noses, forgotten and overlooked, is the planet’s indigenous population, the Fremen. This last detail is the first thing that this new adaptation focuses on. The famously clunky Dune from 1984, directed by David Lynch, begins with a strange woman dressed in white speaking directly to the audience about how important spice is. Villeneuve’s Dune begins narration from Chani, one of the Fremen played by Zendaya, explaining to the audience how the spice trade and house rivalries are destroying their home and their way of life. The film’s thesis statement in its opening moments is a condemnation of imperialism, which is more effort than most other adaptations put in. It tries to convince us that things that the protagonist’s family wants to do are not cool or exciting, but unfortunately for the themes, this film is pretty cool and exciting.
The main selling point for Dune (and by extension most other science fiction films) is its visual and production design. Most of the marketing for this film makes it seem quite grey and bland, but I’m glad to say while this film is mostly desaturated, it is not bland. It manages to ride the line between gritty realism and fantastical locales. This is a world where man is dwarfed by its own creations. The spaceships they fly are simple shapes: cubes, spheres, eggs, but scaled up to a size that will give you vertigo looking up at it. It’s a far cry from the elaborate spaceships of Star Wars and Star Trek. The cities they live in already look like ancient ruins, despite taking place 8000 years in the future. The great city of Arrakis, massive and completely barren, reminded me of the cyclopean city described in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, only with a desert flair. The “shields” that the Atreidies and Sardaukar warriors use give off a blue shimmer, enveloping the wearer in a tangible mirage. It looks like sorcery, which is quite understandable. As Arthur C. Clarke eloquently put it: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Since it’s set so far in the future, it should look like magic. We are witnessing our successors change into something not quite human. We are witnessing what happens when humanity becomes alien. The members of House Atreides look the same, but the pale, hairless Harkonnens look just so slightly off. The bright blue eyes of the Fremen indicate that they have become something more. What really sells this sense of alienness is the score by Hans Zimmer. Say what you will about Zimmer, but at least the man is consistent. Most of his scores sound extremely similar, but his work on Dune gives the film the alien gravitas that it deserves. It’s loud, droning, but there are actually a few recognizable motifs. Watching this in a theatre with a good sound system is a must; the score and sound design envelops you when it isn’t destroying your eardrums. The production design combined with the music creates some memorable and intense scenes. The futuristic Catholic costumes during the ceremony with the Spacing Guild, the feverish whispers as the Bene Gesserit craft takes off in the night, the throat singing and hellish rituals of the Sardaukar… it all works to create an atmosphere of an almost religious fervor. It’s the Gregorian chant of the distant future. It makes you feel small.
The film isn’t perfect, obviously. As I mentioned before, this film is loud. Almost too loud at times. Action and explosions deserve to be loud, but sometimes it gets a bit too overwhelming. On the same page of sound mixing, this film suffers from the same problem that most modern films have, which is the fact that nearly all of the actors mumble. The loud sound design sometimes overpowers the quiet dialogue, which leads to a few lines getting dropped. For example, the famous “Fear is the mind-killer” speech is put in the background, whispered underneath layers of other sounds. The scene where Paul receives visions of a future jihad (a word censored in this film to “holy war”), Timothée Chalamet acts more than he ever has before, but his delirious, slurred speech muddles the incredibly important things he is saying. The biggest problem this film has, however, is the fact that it is incomplete. This is Part One of a two-part film, which means that the vast majority of the dialogue is exposition. Two and a half hours later, when things start to get interesting, the credits roll. It’s necessary, but it feels odd to see such a spectacular film be reduced to context for a film that doesn’t exist yet.
All in all, I think this is a worthwhile film and a faithful adaptation. Despite its flaws, I’m glad it exists. It’s a film that deserves to be watched on the biggest screen and played on the biggest speakers possible. I tried to watch this film through a critical, objective view, but the alluring arms of Bombast and Spectacle reached through the screen and grabbed me tight. I got lost in the world of the film, and if you see this on the big screen, I’m sure you will too.