For the better part of half a decade the common line uttered from avid book-readers and seasoned film-makers has more or less been the same; simply, that Dune was logistically and narratively unadaptable. The presiding thought being that the gargantuan scale of its world and intricacy of its lore would be the barrier between what made the novel work and what could make a theoretical film work. Several notable film-makers stood up to face the challenge, with a notable example being cult film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who was pegged to adapt it back in the 1970’s. However, just like the beasts that roam the titanic planet of Arrakis, Jodorowsky’s project collapsed under its own weight, succumbing to budget constraints once studio execs saw how truly monstrous the project was. But it wasn’t over just yet.
In the early 1980’s surrealist film-maker David Lynch was hired to take on the project, another auteur, just like Jodorowsky. It almost seemed that only those with a truly eccentric mind had the courage or audacity to tackle this story. The result of Lynch’s attempt? A critical and financial failure. Director David Lynch even went as far as to scrub his name from the project due to alleged artistic mingling from the studio execs. The suspicions were seemingly confirmed from that day on; this novel could not be adapted and it seemed it was all over.
However, in the years between Lynch’s flop and today, something had changed. You see, in times past, people had uttered the same defeatist remarks about The Lord of the Rings novels – that it was something so bold and sacred that the big screen could not give it justice. In fact, The Lord of the Rings is often directly compared to Dune due its intricate world and unimaginable scale. If the success of The Lord of the Rings films has taught us anything, it’s that it’s certainly possible to adapt the unadaptable.
Enter acclaimed filmmaker Denis Villenueve, a director that recently succeeded at producing a sequel to the beloved Blade Runner (1982) film; so successfully in fact, that is often said to supersede the original – a film that is treasured deeply by its core fanbase. Who better to take on such an audacious task at adapting Dune? You see, part of the appeal to peg this director for Dune is that it primarily requires two key traits; the first is having the ability to take the original source material and translate it faithfully and adeptly on-screen. The second is to simply be a very proficient director, one that has the technical and artistic toolset to strike the right tone and feel of the world and its characters. If Villenueve is a master at anything, its tone. Whether its a grungy murder-mystery, an omninous and introspective sci-fi, or a bold take on first contact with aliens – Villeneuve is really one of the few directors in Hollywood that can be blindly trusted with tone.
It is his mastery of tone that Villeneuve uses to guide us through the expansive narrative ocean of the Dune world; that world, being the arid planet of Arrakis. A planet with deep cultural and religious roots, from the native Fremen to the great houses of Harkonnen and Atreides. There’s a lot to unpack from the world of Dune, in its traditions, social and political hierarchies, and economy. This is where Villeneuve’s Dune shines from a storytelling perspective; just like Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve deconstructs how something should feel and then turns into moving pictures on-screen. Faithful, tonally accurate, and appropriately bold – Villeneuve’s creates a seismic presence that wraps tightly around you from beginning to end. The cities feel towering, the empty halls feel intentful, and the traditions feel as though they’ve been practiced for millenia. Just as avid Dune fanatics would’ve wanted, Villenueve’s Dune truly feels as momentous as the novel itself. In terms of bringing this world to life, it cannot be argued that he is the man for the job.
However, with every momentous achievement, there is often an aspect that strays behind. With Villenueve it is inarguable that his character work was not at the same scale as his world-building. Unlike the infectious adventurous energy that seeps out of The Lord of the Rings trilogy; what we get here are relatively muted personalities that are often found speaking in a very serious manner about very serious things. This film is very serious, and it has every reason to be given its scale. It’s hard to get an audience to take your world bluntly if the dialogue can’t be taken at face value. Now if you’re thinking that I’m implying this film needed more quippy one-liners then let me stop you right there. I am well aware that this film requires audiences to take it seriously, but I’m also very aware that audiences need some levity to digest all that heavy material. Villenueve’s Dune is quite simply, a very focussed film, aimed at striking a tone, building a large world, doing the written material justice, and convincing audiences that they need to make a follow-up; it’s a lot to handle. Does it achieve the same level of character development as similar filmic saga’s? No. But it achieves or even exceeds that feeling you get when you’re in its world. True, pure, filmic immersion.
Arguably the highpoint of Dune is the visual aesthetic it establishes right from the first frame we see. Greig Fraser has some notable works in the past as he has collaborated with a range of directors, this pairing with Denis Villenueve accentuates his ability to capture the director’s vision. The visual scope of Dune is gargantuan by nature and this is felt as we venture into this universe, the impressive quality of the cinematography is that it never drifts away from its characters. While Fraser creates a transportive experience, he embeds the visual narrative in its characters and lets the other elements be secondary.
Dune might have one of the best examples of employing computer-generated imagery with practical effects in the same frame. When CGI overlaps sequences that incorporate a high usage of practicality in shooting, it never feels intrusive – it feels intrinsic to the frame and blends seamlessly. Ultimately serving as a demonstration that not everything needs to be practical to elevate its visual quality, but that the way it’s used is the key variable. Using a colour palette of mostly desaturated hues that ground the film’s immersive feel to it as it emphasises aspects of this universe we are transported to – such as the harshness of the heat in Arrakis.
The collaboration between the live-action photography and the production design align so well and complement each other to create a truly mesmerising cinematic experience. Many elements help form a compelling reality to become absorbed in, from the brutalist architectural design of the cities in Arrakis to the intricate costume-design of Fremen stillsuits. The walls have murals that hold narrative tidbits and the furniture is custom-made to visually communicate with the audience. The details amongst the production design are incredibly intricate – leaving a lot to unpack on future viewings. The formalist approach to the film’s technical output is extremely rewarding and accentuates the transportive cinematic experience of the film. As a long time fan of the book, he turned down scoring Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, Hans Zimmer wanted to deliver a composition like none other he has done before by opting to use instruments of a western orchestra to capture the world of Dune. The result is a thunderous and bombastic score which includes spine tingling chants, rapid fast paced drumming and the use of bagpipes which solidifies the tone Dune is trying to go for. The musical score is not the only sound aspect that excels in this film. The sound design is just as fantastic as it immerses you into the world with the earth shattering bass of its ships and the buzz of the human overshields makes this experience one for the cinema.
Dune may not tick all those boxes that make an entry to a saga a certified win, but it paves the way for a good chance to become a household classic. You see, we’re still awaiting Part 2, and until then, the story is not over. In terms of actually saying things of impact, Villeneuve speaks largely in metaphor and allegory, which is primarily what made him such an ideal selection to direct a Blade Runner sequel. Whether this trademark approach works with Dune is yet to be seen, but there’s one thing nobody can take away from Villenueve’s Dune, and that’s the enormity and grand beauty of its world.