Dune, 2021, directed by Denis Villeneuve, 5/5 Stars
Adapting Frank Hebert’s Dune is no easy undertaking. David Lynch’s 1984 version of the science fiction epic has widely been regarded as a campy failure to attempt to bring the novel to the big screen, and many filmmakers and audiences widely considered a Dune movie to be “unfilmable.” The novel itself is hugely unwieldy, with Herbert’s world building and overwrought backstories besting even The Lord of the Rings in their complexity and depth. The novel is accompanied by a glossary of its own constructed languages and vocabulary, and much of the story is dedicated to understated descriptions of the characters’ daily lives. While director Denis Villeneuve could never have captured the entirety of Herbert’s vision in a single feature length film, the philosophies and questions that the 1965 book posits are present, and Villeneuve realizes the fictional world of Dune on a spectacular scale. With assistance from the all-star ensemble cast; Hans Zimmer’s forceful, quasi-religious score; and some of the most beautiful, polished visual effects ever to grace the big screen, 2021’s Dune is one of the French Canadian auteur’s best films to date.
The most notable flaws in the sci-fi epic stem from the struggles of adapting such dense and intricate writing. Villeneuve loses some of the nuances of characters and their relationships, and many scenes and exposition from the book are cut to expand on the more action-oriented sequences. This lack of character work in the script does weigh on the pacing, and may leave some less engaged viewers overwhelmed, disoriented or bored in some moments. But where the script stumbles, characters are realized by the performances from the cast. Timothee Chalamet, as protagonist Paul Atredies, delivers his most dynamic performance ever. Chalamet is complimented excellently by Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica. Oscar Isaac gives a more understated but just as notable performance as Paul’s stern father and a strong ruler, Duke Leto Atredies. Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin, as Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck respectively, are also great additions to the cast, and through their acting give their characters time to shine and develop.
What makes Dune so special, though, is the way it looks, sounds and feels. The production design of the sets and costumes feels wholly unique while still faithful to Herbert’s descriptions, mixing elements of mid-century science fiction, more modern design aesthetics, as well as medieval Islamic architectural sensibilities. The film’s cinematography is awe-inspiring, with characters frequently dwarfed in the frame by massive spaceships and structures, black dots against the bright oranges and yellows of the film’s color palette. The scale of the fictional planet of Arrakis, where most of the story takes place, as well as the iconic sand worms, is seemingly infinite, paying testament to the power and terrifying beauty of the natural world. This imagery would be incomplete, though, without the booming, teeth-rattling score from Hans Zimmer. Zimmer’s signature style is recognizable throughout, but his score for Dune sets itself apart from his past work, integrating more human voices and religious chants, giving the film as a whole a spiritual and contemplative tone.
Dune is the next big thing. It is immeasurable in scale, both in its visual depth and in its sonic landscape, and it is perhaps the best adaption of Herbert’s novel that moviegoers could ever possibly see. Dune is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max now.