For a time, science fiction novel “Dune” seemed to be both a holy grail and a fool’s errand for directors. After an ill-fated 1984 film directed by David Lynch and a mostly forgotten 2000 TV miniseries, “Dune” appeared to be headed towards the status of an unfilmable book. This wasn’t without reason; the Frank Herbert work is dense, sprawling and filled with enough lore terms to fill an encyclopedia. But above all, it is a compelling and epic story that was begging for someone to do it justice, and Denis Villeneuve may have done just that.
Villeneuve has been swinging for the sci-fi fences for the past decade with “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049,” and while they have been met with critical praise, neither seems to have made a lasting effect on the public. With “Dune,” Villeneuve has managed to find a rare cross section of big-budget spectacle, artistic integrity and mainstream popularity that has seemingly left Hollywood filmmaking.
“Dune” follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the heir apparent to the powerful House Atreides just as they have just been given the task of overseeing spice production on the desert planet Arrakis. Spice is a hallucinogenic drug that makes space travel possible and is considered the most expensive product in the universe, placing House Atreides in a dangerous position of protecting it. Meanwhile, Paul endures fractured visions of his future, including that he may be some sort of messianic figure to the Fremen, a native people of Arrakis that resist outsiders attempting to profit off of the planet’s spice.
If all this sounds like a lot of moving parts (and there’s more that can be mentioned), well, that’s because it is. However, director Villenueve opts to dole out these chunks of world building in measured ways. At times, the film bulldozes through in-universe terms and phrases that may seem hard to follow, but ultimately this is done so that “Dune” can just show you what everything means rather than dump exposition. The result allows audiences to take in the sheer scale and visual beauty of the film.
And the film is visually breathtaking. From the sweeping shots of the endless desert, to the close up reveal of the overwhelmingly massive sandworm, “Dune” looks both stunning and terrifying in scope. Villenueve’s tendency towards brutalist style architecture, while not completely successful in “Blade Runner 2049,” looks absolutely at home within the harsh world of Arrakis. The visuals work in tandem with the sometimes odd sound design. Instead of triumphant orchestral arrangements, “Dune” sports bagpipes and booming throat singing. These choices present a much more alien atmosphere, and their somewhat off-putting nature actually strengthens the visual experience.
Where “Dune” manages to separate itself from other blockbuster films is in its willingness to present common tropes in a more complicated and interesting package. In a vacuum, “Dune” may appear to be another story of a hero’s journey, and in a way, the film does bear some resemblance to Arthurian legend. Instead, the film plants the seeds that Atreides’s fate as a messiah is also filled with tragedy that he may be responsible for. Atreides is portrayed less as heroic and more as a boy who is losing pieces of himself in order to become that hero, and Chalamet’s acting lends itself well to this angle. This aspect of the plot could have easily been written out in the Hollywood plot and made for a lesser, if not more traditional story, but the added nuances allows “Dune” to stand out as more thematically dynamic.
If there are weaknesses of the film, the most obvious is simply that it isn’t finished. This isn’t surprising given that it only covers half of the novel and the title card does clarify that it is officially “Dune: Part One,” but some may come out of the film feeling as if the film ended just as it was getting going. And the film’s tendency to let dialogue take a backseat to the visuals may leave viewers lost as to who exactly is fighting who and who the hell the emperor is. At large, the weaknesses stem from Villenueve asking us to slow down and let the film breathe and take its time. On the other hand, this can lead some to think, “I watched two and a half hours to end up here?”
In some ways, the ponderous pace of the film and sometimes obtuse approach to dialogue is a breath of fresh air. Hollywood seems to be stuck in a period of creative bankruptcy, where we will never be starved for Marvel movies, remakes and reboots. “Dune” has the distinction of being an ambitious, and even risky, film to attempt. Where most franchises are planned out years ahead of time, Warner Brothers did not confirm a “Dune” sequel until a week after its release, as they were worried it would be a financial failure. Instead, audience response at large seems to confirm that they were craving more as well, and the success of “Dune” may signal that fatigue may be setting in for the Disneyfication of the film landscape.
Ultimately, it feels like a revelation that a movie as unwieldy, and often weird, as “Dune” is experiencing a moment of almost universal praise and financial success. It may be due to the aforementioned audience fatigue, or it may be that the public was primed for this type of movie by other popular sprawling epics with political intrigue like “Game of Thrones.” Whatever the reason, it seems to have surprised a number of people, including the movie studios and the writer of this review himself. Perhaps most surprising of all is that the curse of the unfilmable book has finally been broken, and with some luck, risky films will be the new reboots.
Dan Debuque is a fifth-year English major with a minor in Film Criticism. DD717545@wcupa.edu