Dune: Fine Grain, by Josh Long
It’d be an understatement to say that there’s a lot riding on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, with a massive fanbase and eighteen sequel/prequel novels. Previous adaptations have been troubled. Jodorowsky’s 1970s attempt fell apart before cameras could start rolling, and David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation was a critical and commercial failure (not to mention a film Lynch would come to disown). On top of all that, studios are desperately looking for a film to pull the box office out of a slump that even Marvel can’t seem to beat. Can the helmer of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 bring us a Dune that will please fans and critics alike? A resounding yes.
The story of Dune has such a deep mythology, rife with history, political intricacy, and terminology, that it’s hard to run through all of it with any brevity. Here’s my best: the Atreides family of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) are sent by their emperor to leave their lush homeworld of Caladan and take over the desert planet of Arrakis. Arrakis is a wasteland, but a valuable spice essential to space travel is mined there. Two key factors make this dangerous for the Atreides. First is that the natives of the planet, called the Fremen, are hostile to anyone coming to their home to harvest spice. The second is that the most recent rulers of Arrakis were the Harkonnens, major political rivals to House Atreides. Paul is the heir to these political struggles, but has also been trained in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, a mystical order of priestesses of whom his mother is a part. When the Harkonnens carry out an attack on the cities of Arrakis, Paul and Jessica flee into the desert, where they hope to find help from the Fremen.
It’s a massive story (and the film is only part one – part two is still in pre-production). But handling something this big is one of many things the film does so well. To convey such a massive wealth of mythology to audiences who may have no knowledge of the IP is a difficult task, and this script does it wonderfully. It never leaves us confused or feels overly expositional, always dancing on the line in between. The history is built into the integrity of the story in such a way that we grasp many details without ever having anyone explain them to us. The mythos of the world feels deep and real, and does much to ground the story.
Villeneuve has earned his sci-fi bona fides in spades by this point so it should surprise no one that the look and feel of the film are spectacular. Along with Oscar nominated cinematographer Greig Fraser, he’s created a world that feels both ancient and futuristic. This is where some of the best sci-fi shines, and one of the things that has drawn people to Dune over the years. Even though it’s about alien planets and space travel, more of it feels centered around myths and ancient prophecy. It reaches forward and backward in time, creating a fusion that’s unlike anything else we’ve seen. The settings and battles on Arrakis feel like they could have come out Mesopotamian history. The film reaches true epic proportions, and draws us deeply into the magic, prophecy, and wonder of this universe.
Many signature elements of Villeneuve’s style are found here. Muted color palette, imposing monolithic architecture, high contrast visuals, especially in the interplay between light and shadow. The use of the dark effectively highlights the mystery behind so much of the story. Whether it’s the conspiracy between the emperor and the Harkonnens, the powers of the Bene Gesserit, or the secrecy of the Fremen, it all feels dark, ominous, and tantalizingly elusive. Much of the film is shot in the deserts of Jordan, and likely even more of part two will take place there. When it comes to desert films, it’s hard not to think of Lawrence of Arabia – in fact, Herbert was said to have taken influence from Lean’s film, to the point where an earlier draft of his novel found Paul “too much like Lawrence.” Villeneuve doesn’t ignore that influence, but doesn’t rely too heavily on it either.
The film also succeeds where others have failed when it comes to the details of the world-building. Some things, like the sand worms for instance, were understandably hampered by special effects capabilities in the past. This time around the filmmakers are capable of so much more with visual effects, but Villeneuve chooses to hold details back, keeping everything eerie and mysterious. This keeps the effects from looking flashy and plastic like they often do in Marvel films. The practical details are fantastic. From the weaponry to the stillsuits to the palace furniture, everything has its own sense of history and fits snugly into its part of the world.
Of course, there are always superfans who will be disappointed at the film’s inability to match what’s in their minds. But this film is by far the best adaptation of the book, and it will undoubtedly bring lots of new fans into the Dune universe. It’s exciting, mysterious, beautiful to look at, and a lot of fun. Everything you could want from a Hollywood blockbuster. If the team can deliver as much for Part Two, we’ve got lots to look forward to.