Dune is a book that has been notoriously hard to capture on the big screen. With failed adaptations that never got off the ground, television lacking the required budget, and the unique take by David Lynch, Dune has defined adaptation. This year at TIFF, Denis Villeneuve managed the delicate balancing act of bringing the subject material to the screen while offering new takes on age-old concepts, making one of the most beautiful science fiction films to date.
Villeneuve is no stranger to the world of science fiction, known for his work on Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. He has brought to life some of the most captivating concepts and ideas in a style that is unmistakably his. Even with this track record, I was hesitant that he would be able to take on Dune and make it a must-see blockbuster.
While the story on the surface sounds like it would be easy to adapt, it is the nuance and complexity of the story and world that make it a challenge. Many have veered into the realm of spiritual nonsense, missing the core of the series. Thankfully, Villeneuve has proven himself as a master of his craft, tackling the complex political, metaphysical, and personal aspects of the books without losing focus along the way.
“…one of the most beautiful science fiction films to date.”
For anyone who does not know the story of Dune, it follows House Atreides as they are ordered to become the stewards of Arrakis, the planet known for deserts, sand worms, and the driving force of space travel, Spice. Taking over from Harkonnen, this is a political hot potato, with one wrong move meaning the end of everything they all hold dear.
Knowing the gamble, he is walking into, Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto Atreides takes on the challenge. He and his mistress, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), look to make the new stewardship work, but political forces are working behind the scenes to see this once mighty house fall.
There is a lot going on in Dune, and it is nearly impossible to tell the whole story in under three hours. Thankfully, Villeneuve does not attempt to. He takes the first segment of the book and brings to life the characters, world, and political strife with a staggering visual flair. Each aspect of the universe feels lived in, fully realized and starkly different from what many have attempted with the series. The scale and scope of the world are brought to life and put on full display.
“Dune is a feast for the senses.”
From the brutality of Harkonnen and their home world, to the monstrous ships and landscapes, Dune is a feast for the senses. It is powerful and sometimes overwhelming, bombarding the viewer with everything this universe has to offer, yet giving it time to wash over you in its magnificent and brutal glory. Even the Sand Worms, that are often overdone, were captured in a way that has never been seen before, painted as a dangerous threat, but one that is truly majestic when seen up close.
The acting talent on display is another highlight of this film. Everyone delivers the right tone, making them likeable without taking themselves too seriously. Jason Momoa (Duncan Idaho), Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin (Gurney Halleck) all bring the many faces of House Atreides to life in a way that makes us care. They are all motivated, focused and love who they are, and it shows. It gives a root to focus on as we dive into the over two-hour runtime.
But since this movie acts as an entry point—giving us a taste of Paul and how he will rise up once he has taken his place as a leader—the performance of Timothée Chalamet needed to be an anchor we could follow through this epic journey. Thankfully, he delivers, and paints a young hero who is reluctant and scared, but powerful. It is a concept we have seen in countless movies over the years, but Villeneuve managed to bring Paul to the screen in a way that works, and Timothée Chalamet embodied that vision to masterful effect.
Heroes of the film are given plenty of time to let us in and teach us why we should care. Villeneuve also gave just enough of the plotting and schemes of Harkonnen and its leader, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), to see why they are such a threat. From the brutality of his orders, to how loyal and similar all members of his family are—including Dave Bautista as Glossu ‘Beast’ Rabban—the menace felt when they are on screen is palpable.
With such an epic work of fiction, it is hard to tackle every aspect that worked, but leave it to be said, there is a lot to enjoy with Dune. This is a movie that needs to be experienced on the big screen to get the full effect. From the vistas to the scenery on display, it is a feast for the eyes. It is a complex work that is filled with nuance.
If you have ever loved science fiction, this is one not to miss. Even as just the first film in a series, Dune is a masterwork. Villeneuve has done the impossible, and brought Arrakis to life in a way that is faithful to the books while being something truly unique and special.