Before the Warner Bros. logo even appears in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the audience is very much aware of what they’re in for. A booming voice commands attention in a move that both surprises viewers, and (hopefully) frightens those still on their phones. The next 155 minutes will enthral you. This is filmmaking at its most spectacular.
Dune centres on the battle to control the planet Arrakis due to its prevalence of the material known as “spice”. This allows users a multitude of enhanced abilities but is also seen as a symbol of wealth. The story begins with House Atreides being granted the stewardship of Arrakis and its indigenous inhabitants. Not only will this bring a source of wealth, but it will also allow a certain rise in social standing for House Atreides who pale in comparison to the obscene wealth of House Harkonnen, the previous occupier of Arrakis. Oscar Isaac’s Leto Atreides is the Duke of House Atreides. His son, Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, is the film’s put-upon protagonist. He grapples with not just the weight of standing as heir to House Atreides, but is plagued by nightmarish dreams of a future that may or may not come to be.
The idea of bringing Dune to life on the big screen is one that is as bold as it is daring. From David Lynch disowning his own version to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s fourteen-hour pipe dream, it would take something truly special to coax something out of a story many considered too big to film.
Here, Villeneuve has wisely chosen to split the film into two parts. Not only does this allow some breathing room, but the pace of the film is almost leisurely as viewers are treated with memorable imagery, instead of a constant barrage of exposition. Viewers can rest assured that not only does this film set up the story nicely, but can also be recognised as a stand-alone triumph.
Denis Villeneuve has created something to behold. This isn’t all that surprising considering that his filmography is littered with films that have taken pride of place in their respective genres. Enemy (2013) is a surreal nightmare that translates into a stunning depiction of the falsehoods of masculinity. Arrival (2016) is a complex story wherein the visage of science-fiction blends with a story so breathtakingly human that its complicated narrative is second to the emotive quality it evokes. Few directors can walk onto the set of Dune with more skin in the game. He has claimed that this was his dream project, and it certainly shows! Every frame feels personal as though it came from a dream (a theme that is well executed in the narrative). Dreams and reality become indistinguishable from each other in a way that feels natural and necessary.
This is Chalamet’s first foray into leading a big-budgeted Hollywood blockbuster. The character of Paul is not one that just anybody could have played. While it requires a sense of charisma, it also demands the innocence and naiveté that he possesses. Paul encapsulates a certain moody resonance that Chalamet carried throughout his indie-filled career. The ever-growing army of Chalamaniacs may rest assured that his performance is just another reason for the admiration to grow.
Chalamet is not alone in giving terrific performances here. Rebecca Ferguson in particular continues to earn her spot as an underrated asset to any film. She is not lumped into a maternal cliché; she is given room to breathe, creating a character who’s intentions are never clear. She is the mother to the protagonist, but also a member of a mysterious order, which brings a welcome dimension to her character as well as adding a sense of mystique to the proceedings. While some may be surprised that certain roles aren’t larger or have more than a few minutes of screen-time, one mustn’t forget that this is merely the first part of the story.
The cinematography and production design are utilised to an unbelievable effect. If the name Dune denotes images of the desert in your mind, then you’re definitely in luck because when the desert world of Arrakis is seen for the first time it is truly a sight to behold. However, the film is not just sand and … more sand. Interiors are used to differentiate the Houses in the film’s universe to terrific effect. Each House and their inhabitants are designed to be instantly recognisable to the viewer. A complex story is translated into a visual tapestry. On soundtrack duty, Hans Zimmer once again produces a composition so mind-bogglingly transportive, viewers will find it hard to evaluate a particular musical instrument in the same way.
The opening lines of the film feature a character asking where their next “oppressors” will come from. There is a real note of caution in a film that attempts to use colonisation, indigenous people and leaders who just so happen to be white, in order to tell a story. It has been done before and will happen again. Films like Avatar (2009) can make all of the money in the world, but if it conveys a white saviour as someone who can do what the indigenous people do, only better, it can only leave a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. A fine line must be threaded, and Dune is a story that is only just beginning after all.
The film isn’t relying on what the white saviour can and cannot do, but more so, why should he be a saviour of any kind? Where the sequel will take this ideology will be intriguing to see. Whether it escapes the messianic saviour cliché is not guaranteed. What is clear is that this is only the beginning.