Dune (2021)

Denis Villeneuve | 2hr 35min

It is no coincidence that those literary classics considered unfilmable often make for some of the greatest displays of narrative put to screen. Peter Jackson proved the filmic potential of The Lord of the Rings in letting its dense story breathe over a 12 hour series, the Coen Brothers did the impossible in effectively adapting a Cormac McCarthy novel with No Country For Old Men, and now after multiple directors’ failed attempts to give Frank Herbert’s epic space opera Dune the cinematic treatment, Denis Villeneuve succeeds on a grand scale, digging into its Greek mythological archetypes as a compelling canvas upon which he paints out intricate civilisations, landscapes, and worlds of historic and futuristic significance.

On this level of raw narrative and visual metaphor, the impact of Francis Ford Coppola’s classical filmmaking is particularly evident. Certainly Herbert must receive the credit for conceptualising the intricate political conflict that springboards his story into the tale of a son rising to the role of family patriarch and a “Chosen One” grappling with responsibility and ego, but Villeneuve’s recognition of the power behind such archetypes allows for some especially rich visual connections back to The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. In its potent use of spiritual symbolism rooted in legends as ancient as Homer’s Iliad or the Succession Myth, Dune measures up to such cinematic classics that similarly harken back to more traditional forms of storytelling.

Villeneuve paying homage to Apocalypse Now over and over in this powerful imagery – war, sin, and rebirth all themes of these films, as well as being fascinations of ancient Greek myths.

At the centre of Dune’s grand narrative is Paul Atreides, a young hero whose great potential is evident in his mysterious, clairvoyant abilities, and his practicing of a form of mind control known as the Voice, though at this stage of his development he does not yet wield a steady power over either. Villeneuve does well to keep his exposition to a bare minimum in this setup, a tough feat in itself given the complex mechanics of the world he is adapting, and as such it is almost entirely through his efficient visual storytelling that his majestic artistic take on Herbert’s source material reveals itself. We don’t need to be told that the mosquito-like hunter-seeker poses a lethal threat to Paul when it invades his home – the silent, nail-biting tension that accompanies its arrival is enough, just as Paul’s decision to remain deadly still to evade detection indicates its motion sensor-based functionality. In more action-heavy scenes, Villeneuve refuses to risk letting the key details of these characters and their environments disappear in the frenzy of battle, choosing to colour-code their shields to effectively indicate whether a blow has penetrated their defences.

Just as significant as Dune’s efficient narrative progression is its measured, deliberate pacing, which carries the enormous weight of the world-ending stakes at play and allows intensive attention to the development of each character and their relationships. In more energetic scenes Villeneuve bounces several subplots off each other in skilful displays of parallel editing, but otherwise he takes his time soaking in awe-inspiring establishing shots of massive ensembles, sloping dunes, and the imposing, geometric architecture that defines each location.

Awe-inspiring establishing shots in the rigid formation of ensembles and architecture.

In House Atreides’ castle on the ocean planet of Caladan, the synthetic, pitch-black décor and costuming of its people carries an air of Gothic expressionism about it, particularly in one scene set in the dead of night where wraith-like nuns of the Bene Gesserit religious order march through an ethereal fog. In stark contrast, the planet of Arrakis is a glaring, spacious desertscape brilliantly lit by a blazing sun, throwing bright shades of yellow and white across a vast, dusty wasteland and flashing dazzling lens flares across the frame. Upon these worlds, gigantic spaceships descend from skies and rise from oceans like concrete leviathans, and yet even these manmade structures cannot stand up against the natural terrors which haunt the planes of Arrakis. Monstrous sandworms tunnel their way through its earth like water, turning these great desert vistas into unpredictable, rippling seas, threatening to swallow up humans and spaceships alike. “The desert isn’t kind to equipment,” Dr Liet-Kynes puts quite mildly. “It isn’t kind to humans either.”

The castle of House Atreides decked out with pitch black decor and filled with stark, white lighting…
…and notice how differently it is captured compared to the planet of the Sardauker. Black is still an important part of this colour scheme, but without the balance of bright lighting it plays more into mid-range greys, and appears far gloomier.
Of course, all of this in sharp contrast to the bright desert of Arrakis, where white, yellow, and orange dominates.

Returning to collaborate with Villeneuve from Blade Runner 2049 is Hans Zimmer with his most experimental score yet, and also undoubtedly one of his best. If turning down working with Christopher Nolan on Tenet meant that this could be written, it was a worthy trade (especially given Tenet’s already fantastic score from Ludwig Göransson). In his blending of otherworldly sound effects, Tuvan throat-singing, tribal percussion, and Middle Eastern harmonic scales, Zimmer crafts a soundscape that effectively underscores the tension between the historical and futuristic conventions at play in the film, and stretches the scope of the film even further than what its commanding narrative and cinematography can achieve alone.

Though Dune ends on somewhat of an open-ended cliff-hanger to leave room for future sequels, it does not come with the feeling that we are being cheated out of a complete story. There are pay-offs to plot and character arcs here worth savouring, especially in Paul himself whose chilling turn down a dark path in the final act coincides with a leap in his own ego, as he edges ever closer to becoming the prophesied Messiah figure so often teased. The world of Dune may have originated in the mind of Frank Herbert, but this cinematic interpretation of it comes solely from Villeneuve, whose command over blockbuster spectacle carries both the substance and artistry so often lost in this tier of epic moviemaking.

It’s tough to stand out as a supporting player in ensembles of this size, but both Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson leave their mark on this film as Paul’s parents, Duke Leto Atreides and Lady Jessica.

Dune is currently out in movie theatres.

5 thoughts on “Dune (2021)”

  1. “and notice how differently it is captured compared to the home of House Harkonnen.”

    Just to clean up that’s not the Harkonnen plant you have images of but rather the Sardukar planet (which is the emperor’s personal legion)

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