Never let it be said that Denis Villeneuve isn’t willing to take risks. After the financial disaster of critical darling Blade Runner 2049, one might have thought that the Canadian director would move on to smaller projects.
But why do that when you can tackle a complex work of science fiction with a history of failures onscreen?
Although adapted several times before, Frank Herbert’s 400-page sci-fi epic Dune has often been described as ‘unfilmable’ due to its incredible ambition and scale. However, Villeneuve has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Inching towards a three hour runtime, Dune seems like it could be almost overwhelming or impractical for audiences. (What’s more, its no secret that this is only the first half of the story as well.)
Even so, the experiment works. In taking this approach, Villeneuve has the opportunity to let the film breathe and allow its expansive storytelling and scale to unravel at its own pace. As a result, the film never feels like it’s unnecessarily cutting material for the sake of the runtime yet never really drags either. The director of such films as the vastly underrated Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, Villeneuve has made a name for himself taking on material with multiple layers and massive landscapes and Dune certainly fits that description.
And to say that Dune operates on a massive scale is to put it mildly.
Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), a gifted young man who believes his destiny is to do great things. As the heir to the House Atreides, Paul is drawn into an interstellar conflict when his father Leto (Oscar Isaacs) attempts to negotiate the exclusive rights to mining a rare and essential natural resource on the planet Arrakis. As discussions move forward, tensions between the House Atreides are stalled when the brutal House Harkkonen attempt to take the resources for themselves. As a result, Paul finds himself caught between loyalty to his father and seeking the destiny that he believes lies before him.
Complex and expansive, there is little wonder why Herbert’s novel is held in such high esteem. The sheer audacity and scope of this piece is awestriking and really truly should only be seen in IMAX. (It’s obvious to see why Villeneuve would have balked at the proposal to release on HBO Max.) While the cinematography may not be quite as impressive as Deakins’ Oscar-winning work in Blade Runner 2049, there is no doubt that Dune is meant to make you feel insignificant against its landscapes. Deserts are expansive and dry. Planets of rain are feel as though they will be drench the audience. Every moment onscreen is constructed to emphasize that its characters are insignificant when compared to the immensity of their environments.
Filled with creativity and detailed history, this is the sort of sci-fi epic that seeks to honour its source material by fully immersing you within its story. Similar to Game of Thrones, Dune is not a simple ‘good versus evil’ battle but instead becomes a deep political thriller with multiple sides, history and theology. As such, casual fans may need to be patient in order to find their way through at first. (Personally, I was unfamiliar with the material and it took me some time to feel like I fully grasped the relationships and tensions between worlds.) That’s not to say that the film doesn’t feature eye-popping special effects and enormous space battles. Villeneuve has some truly amazing visual action set pieces here as well. Instead, it is simply a caution that the film’s strong political emphasis can be overwhelming to the unfamiliar.
As warring factions collide over their interest in ‘spice’, their interest truly lies in power and conquest. The primary propellant for space travel, spice also can extend human life and create super-human levels of thought. As a result, this strange material has become the most sought-after resource in the universe, initiating complicated political machinations in order to maintain control of its reserves. (It’s worth noting that Villeneuve seems to use this as a metaphor to echo the battle for oil in the Middle East.) To those involved, those who control the spice control the galaxy.
Complicating this battle is the Fremen, natives of Arrakis who live in the deep desert. To those who seek only the spice, they are viewed as helpless nomads that need the strength and might of their conquerors. However, it is clear from the outset that the Fremen require no protection. Confident, intelligent and well-organized, the Fremen have survived for centuries on their own amidst the dangers of the desert. Though viewed by the powerful as the ‘savages’ of the desert, in truth they have the greatest understanding of their world and how it operates. However, this matters little to their conquerors. Rather than take the time to learn about the Fremen, the people of Atreides and Harkkonen instead view them as obstacles that threaten their quest for power. Like so many victims of colonization before them, the Fremen are treated with disrespect by those who hold the military might and are therefore kept to the margins.
What’s most interesting about Villeneuve’s Dune though is its spiritual underpinnings. Unlike the cold cynicism of Blade Runner 2049, this is a world that has deeply theological roots that inform its culture with hope. From the authority of the Bene Gesseret to the underlying prophesy, Dune is very interested in imbuing its world with messianic themes. This becomes particularly true in the case of the culture’s view of Paul Atreides and his mother. Believed to be the ‘chosen one’, Paul’s relationship with the people of Atraxis reveals two differing worldviews. On the one hand, the two are held in reverence by those who believe. At the same time, they are kept at a distance by those who simply cannot fathom that this insignificant little man could be the one who has been prophesied about. (Echoing the Biblical narrative of Mary and Jesus, the comparisons to the New Testament journey of Christ are undeniable.) Despite their technological advancements and social systems, this is still a world waiting for something (or someone) more powerful that will give them hope and bring justice.
Bound to be divisive due to its long runtime and complex political landscapes, there will be those who feel they cannot connect with Dune. What’s more, its always a risk to make a film with the intent of future installments, especially for science fiction epics. However, Villeneuve’s Dune is one which deserves to be completed. Featuring expansive storytelling, landscapes and a cast that seems to contain almost everyone in Hollywood, Dune simply works. With deep affection for his source material and incredible skill, Villeneuve has yet again created a film which is both stunning and smart. Most importantly though, this story feels like it has something to say… but it simply needs the opportunity to finish its thought.
Dune is be available in theatres on Friday, October 22nd, 2021.