NYFF Review: Denis Villeneuve’s Dune-Scale Ambitious Enterprises to Serve the Romance’s Themes in Quantifiable Bites
Adaptation by Denis Villeneuve of the vast science fiction novel by Frank Herbert from 1965, Dune, bet on a conquest to master its material with atmosphere. It’s hard to ignore the magnificent nature of the film – it often feels like you’ve been transported entirely to another world. Mentally, you think of every rumble of a spaceship, every grain of sand on the desert planet Arrakis, and every glassy gaze of every character as they scan something in the distance. As we have seen since Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, Villeneuve has a penchant for setting up an otherworldly atmosphere. By naming Dune his “dream project”, there is a considerable amount of detail and care with the over two and a half hour excavation. The arduous task fit into all of Dune’s themes, such as political tensions, betrayal, conflict over natural resources, and mind-altering powers in ways that fans and non-fans can embrace. Along with writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, Villeneuve certainly had a daunting task ahead of them. Herbert’s novel almost feels like an impenetrable conquest that Hollywood cannot break through.
2021 Dune is a cinematic event in every sense of the word, where cinematographer Greig Fraser sought to make each environment divergent and deep. When you visit the Atreids’ home port in Caladan, the oceans are plentiful and the waves seem too real, unlike the hot, arid terrain of Arrakis. Just by looking, you can feel the division between the house of the Atreids and the Fremen, a group of people who live in Arrakis and have adapted to the harsh climate all year round. House Harkonnen, an autocratic dominant body, inflicts cruelty on the Fremen, as their planet possesses a rich resource called Spice. It is used for various things – healing properties, fuel, and hallucinogenic qualities. The emperor placed Atreides in charge of the place. Duke Leto (Oscar Issac) agrees, but acknowledges that it is possible to be stabbed in the back. This is the geopolitical layer.
Paul AtrÃ©ides (TimothÃ©e Chalamet) has a destiny ahead of him. He has vivid dreams of a blue-eyed girl named Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen, as well as other visions of death and conquest. Her mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is part of a religious sect called Bene Gesserit who can use her voice to control her mind. Paul shares little time with Leto and Jessica for different reasons. Leto considers him the heir to the throne, while Jessica tries to instill in him the discipline to use his abilities. While concise, it’s a good differentiation on how patriarchal / matriarchal struggles can play out.
Speaking of how big this movie is, it’s so big it needs anchors. One comes from Hans Zimmer’s heavy and formidable score. Its minimalist hums with drums, bagpipes, and the occasional lead-in backing vocals will bring a steady, robust rumble to your seat. The other is an attempt to make the large pieces of this story digestible, even if it feels like a constant barrage of information coming into your brain matter. This is the problem that the 1984 version of David Lynch found. How to make this story rich in themes something that follows the lines of cohesion?
Villeneuve succeeds in some ways, but really because there is hope for future narratives to flesh things out. 2021 Dune is built with more movies in mind and will leave you wanting more. All of the performances are as good as needed, but I hope the emotional elements are more abundant as we go along. Chalamet, Issac and Ferguson all serve their characters well. Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa play Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho, two mentors to Paul from across the spectrum. Gurney has an element of harsh love with a hatred towards the Fremen, while Duncan has a more relaxed and approachable side. Zendaya appears in the latter part of the film to play a larger role in future installments, as Javier Bardem as Stilgar, a leader of the particular Fremen tribe. If you remember The cell, this is how Villeneuve presents Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd). His stature is enormous and can grow in height as he becomes more confrontational. It feels like it’s mostly bottled for later use for all the goosebumps we see.
Worldbuilding is the primary focus here, but there are extreme elements of danger and action. Especially once the sandworms are introduced and House Atreides is ambushed by the Harkonnen. Thus, this Dune leads a constant battle, being its moderate restraint in history and the gigantism displayed on the screen. You almost want to join the call from the stands for a sequel to see if Villeneuve can take full advantage of that. Especially with the conclusion of the film which slams like a trapped door.
Photo credit: Warner Brothers