‘Dune’ Review: Dir. Denis Villeneuve

Frank Herbert’s science-fiction novel Dune is one of the best-selling books with the genre. Released in 1965, the literary work has sold over 20 million copies, has been translated into multiple languages, and is a worldwide success. Though many have tried, up to now all screen adaptations of Herbert’s story have been a bit lacklustre. First there was David Lynch’s Dune, a film which even the director took offence to, then came a slew of made-for-TV adaptations for channels such as Syfy, which covered not only Dune, but the following stories in the series. Undeterred Denis Villeneuve, the director behind instant science-fiction classics Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, has set about creating his own interpretation of Dune.

A lifelong fan of Herbert’s book, Dune is a film that Villeneuve has long yearned to adapt. The director has pumped everything he has into creating the most faithful interpretation of Herbert’s source, going so far as to split the story into two separate pieces, making his Dune, Dune Part One. It’s a bold opening gambit, titling one’s film as such, especially [at time of writing] with a second film not yet confirmed. Hinging all of his hopes on a successful box office return, Villeneuve is clearly a filmmaker unafraid of rolling the dice and taking chances, but will his gamble bear fruit?

Villeneuve’s Dune is worth every minute of it’s 156 minute run time, the director ensuring that all key moments from Herbert’s source make it up onto the screen, the result a more rounded and easy to follow narrative structure than that of Davis Lynch’s. Lynch’s work seemed to require a prior knowledge of the worlds and politics to fully work out relationships and connections in his work. With so many factions at play, following the 1984 film was far too confusing. There’s no such issue here though, Villeneuve setting the worlds, and the players within, in a much more coherent manner. Gone too are the comic book and cartoonish camp of Lynch’s version, replaced with a more serious and respectful tone.  

The extended run time is a daunting undertaking, and yet it passes by in the blink of an eye. Villeneuve effortlessly whisks the viewer away to this fictitious universe and stuffs all he can into each frame to keep the audience entirely immersed in what is on screen. With so much to see, IMAX really is the best place to experience Dune. The marriage of sound to image is always a key one, but Villeneuve has a history of pairing the two together so intrinsically that only an IMAX set-up can accurately translate to audiences. It’s worth noting too that IMAX screens tend to be better looked after than other cinema screens, and taking a chance on a regular screen outside of London’s West End could leave you with a sub par viewing experience. Multiplexes are notorious for not keeping their screens fully maintained to the desired industry standard. Projector bulbs are often kept in place long after the luminescence has deteriorated to the point that you can only barely make out what the images are; the screen themselves also have a habit of being either visibly dirty, or worse still, slightly warped. It’s a practice that needs to change, terrible projections lead to many simply writing certain films off as having been too dark. This is one criticism likely to afflict Dune as most of the non-sand-set scenes take place in grand shadowy halls. 

Epic scale cinematic science-fiction films have a history of relying more on VFX gimmicks and action to sell their stories, and whilst Villeneuve’s has plenty of sumptuous vistas to enjoy, it is the choice of cast that makes Dune so special. Timothée Chalamet leads as our hero Paul Atreides, giving a great portrayal of a boy on the brink of manhood. His Paul is thoughtful, brooding and confident. Entirely a product of his upbringing, Paul is the perfect combination of both of his parents, housing his father’s shrewd mind for politics and his mother’s psychic talents. Taking on the mantle of Paul’s parents are Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson. Issac shirks his Poe Dameron persona as the more serious, and yet warm, leader of the House of Atreides. Imagine if you would that The Lion King’s Mufasa was placed into human form and you have a vague idea of who his Duke Leto is and what he stands for. Of House Atreides it is Ferguson who steals every scene, and almost the entire film. Her Lady Jessica is a brilliant mixture of maternal instinct, keen mind, and ferocious fighter and Ferguson plays her to absolute perfection. If Dune is worthy of any Academy Award nods in the acting categories, it is Ferguson’s performance that is the most worthy.

The stacked cast doesn’t end with this trio, Dune also features fantastic performances from Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, David Dastmalchian, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and Zendaya. Whilst Zendaya’s part is kept to a minimum, the part of Chani will become a key role should Dune Part Two become a reality, and the groundwork set here points to another superb turn from the young actor. Of the actors whose characters are more heavily featured, it is Momoas’s Duncan Idaho that really shines. The character is hardly featured in Lynch’s movie and yet is a key member of the Atreides military, the first to build bridges with the hostile and oppressed Freman people. Of all Momoa’s performances, it is this one that feels the most special. Momoa has spent the last couple of years singing Dune’s praises, outing himself as a massive fan of the source material and this love shines through here. As Aquaman it feels as though Momoa is merely playing a heightened version of himself; here he fully inhabits Idaho, adding a smattering of humour to the piece whilst still retaining the heart and spirit of a warrior. Skarsgård is also fantastically creepy as Baron Harkonnen, the villain of Dune. He’s not the cartoonish and disgusting villain as portrayed in the 1984 film, his iteration being a more grotesque and threatening figure, his presence felt much more than his limited screen time. The darkness of his soul permeates Dune to the point that the Harkonnen ambush of House Atreides feels as if it is the Baron alone that is causing the carnage, his army a perfect extension of his own depraved malice.  

When the calibre of the cast is as strong as it is in Dune, a director could simply sit back and relax, the film could be classed a hit on performances alone. Villeneuve however answers the gauntlet thrown down by his players, giving them a beautiful and wondrous visual playground, pushing visual effects to their limits to create the perfect surroundings. The richness and complexities of the narrative are complemented with an equally vast landscape, the world of Arrakis feels real despite its fictitious origins. Villenueve also pumps in the right amount of tension and dread when exploring Arrakis. The world is overridden with the giant indigenous Shai-Hulud (sandworms), creatures who dwell underground, attracted to rhythmic vibrations, and can appear at any time to obliterate anyone nearby. Sequences featuring these monstrous beasts are especially compelling, in particular the first aerial tour of Arrakis, which culminates in a worm attack, is a masterclass in action and suspense.

Dune is likely to be a film spoken about for many years to come, already being touted as this generation’s The Lord of the Rings, and is a worthy recipient of all the praise being lavished upon it. A smart science-fiction film whose characters and world tangibly connect with the viewer, Dune is a grandiose and emotional film that leaves you craving further exploration. Fingers crossed Dune Part Two isn’t far away.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Dune is available in cinemas across the UK now.