Denis Villeneuve is a director who constantly straddles the line between arthouse and mainstream, with his work tending to lean toward the former; on this occasion though, Villeneuve has taken a comparatively balanced approach, carefully and cleverly utilising the tropes of his previous works to curate something more accessible.
Eight millennia into the future, the aristocratic Atreides family is summoned to provide security on Arrakis, a distant planet covered almost entirely in sand and made near-uninhabitable by the searing heat. Their presence is necessary because of the remote world’s riches, with colonisers mining the surface for the universe’s rarest mineral, known as Spice; hence, there are plenty of nefarious forces who wish to usurp Arrakis and the resources it contains.
The timing for this decree is curious, since Paul (Timothée Chalamet) – the only son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) – has been experiencing visions of Arrakis and a young woman named Chani (Zendaya), one of the planet’s native inhabitants. Through these dreamlike occurrences, Paul has been forewarned of bloodshed, yet also moments of calm and peace, all the while being unsure as to whether these visions are prophecies, or pure fantasy.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is adapted from Frank Herbert’s celebrated novel of the same name, and isn’t the only instance of his text being turned into a motion-picture, with visionary director David Lynch having made the first attempt at a feature-length adaptation of the book in 1984. Lynch’s film was widely ridiculed upon release, leaving him to disown the project and blame studio interference for its problems, although retrospective critiques of his movie have been much kinder.
Unlike its 1984 namesake, there’s no evidence of interference from a studio or otherwise in Villeneuve’s version of the fable, which very much appears to be his picture and his alone. The director’s motifs are present throughout Dune, such as a tranquil, almost meditative atmosphere that draws comparison with Arrival; a fusion of retrograde technology and post-modern design in the film’s architecture and modes of transport, similar to Blade Runner 2049; and a slow, steady build-up to some rather intense action sequences, much like Sicario.
The influence of Villeneuve is most especially found in the imagery, his oversight resulting in some of the most exquisite visuals ever placed in a blockbuster. Close attention has been paid to Dune’s palette and colour grading by the art department, efforts which ensure a clear distinction between locations and that no hues ever clash. This level of commitment is matched and complemented by the work of cinematographer Greig Fraser, who beautifully captures the scenery throughout.
Dune isn’t just remarkable visually, but aurally as well, with an equal level of attentiveness shown to the picture’s soundscapes. The quality of the sound mixing is above most other blockbusters, for the noises that emanate from the creatures and vehicles are unlike any heard elsewhere; similarly, there’s an appropriately ethereal soundtrack from legendary composer Hans Zimmer – one that takes many of its cues from his work on BR2049 – complete with the loud, blaring horns that have now become his signature.
All of these assets verify Dune as a sensory experience like none other; but when judged as a narrative, it falters somewhat. The film is rather light on story, relying heavily on atmosphere and suspense to keep the viewer engaged, and Villeneuve’s preference for leisurely pacing means that any time not spent advancing the plot seems like an eternity. Also perplexing is how this adaptation glosses over the political commentary of Herbert’s writing, with the allegories for imperialism and religion being merely alluded to, rather than thoroughly explored.
There is an explanation for this ambiguity: it’s because this iteration of Dune is only the first chapter in a planned series. As the opening title makes clear, the film is actually Dune: Part One, serving as an extended teaser for future instalments whilst masquerading as a standalone tale – the publicity for this movie virtually obscures all mention of a franchise, so audiences will rightfully feel cheated learning that it’s an incomplete narrative. Resultingly, there isn’t that sense of catharsis or contentment that usually comes when the end credits roll.
Those who aren’t satiated by the screenplay, or its conclusion, will at least take a liking to the action, sporadic though it may be. There’s some great choreography in the combat sequences, as well as moments of large-scale destruction that are equal parts terrifying and alluring; these scenes are enhanced by the limited, yet impressive application of special effects, in addition to the wonderful photography of Fraser, who proves just as adept at snapping fights as he does capturing landscapes.
Dune represents Denis Villeneuve’s most compelling science-fiction offering to date, effectively combining his brand of slow, contemplative cinema with blockbuster thrills. Its eminence is validated by an ingenious use of sound, rustic-yet-futuristic aesthetics and decent action, all of which compensates for an underwhelming script.