A film, years — even decades — in the making, Denis Villeneuve’s passion project opens with a mysteriously strange and deep voice, recognized among the Dune universe as the language of the Sardaukar — “Dreams are messages from the deep.” For Villeneuve, faithfully adapting Dune to the big screen was his dream, his biggest challenge yet; Dune is a message from the depths of his soul and heart, a creation pure in passion and enthusiasm, sparkling in Denis’ love of the source material.
Long have Frank Herbert’s dense science-fiction texts been deemed unadaptable for the screen; occupied by gargantuan scales, labyrinthine politics, and sweeping stakes, adapting Herbert’s Dune books have proved to be a venture many have dared, but in which, arguably all have failed… Until Villeneuve. With Dune: Part One — his passionately faithful adaptation of the first half of Herbert’s initial Dune book — Villeneuve brings to life the unfilmable.
It’s been mentioned countless times, but every generation has its King Kong, its Star Wars, its Lord of the Rings. In 2021, we’re invited to experience the vast, epic, brooding world of Dune, Villeneuve’s cinematic gift to this generation and its relationship with cinema. The sci-fi epic is not just an exhibition of his love for the source material and cinema, but also a way of inviting us to feel this reverence and adoration through our own newfound experience with the franchise through his impassioned and inspired film.
Often, you need the right director to adapt the specific source material. The Dune ship has seen multiple captains attempt to sail the vessel and fall overboard over the decades, but with Villeneuve, the vessel finds its stability, and he finds his footing in stormy waters that once seemed unnavigable. It often feels fated that Denis was the director to finally bring Herbert’s stories to life on the big screen successfully — Dune is the work his career has been building up to.
Through Incendies to Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve was on a gloriously successive run of seven wonderful feature films; movies that are often talked about years after in intrigue and in a good light, even if they did not perform as well at the box office (which is often an inaccurately particular avenue many tend to use to measure a film’s success). His work often confides in themes of humanity (and the lack thereof), and the conflict of conscience, something Dune’s own source material is captivatingly rich with.
Directors can be the right fit for their projects and develop great films, but what comes across as special about Villeneuve’s adaptation, elevating it beyond just greatness, translates from the director’s long admiration of the original Frank Herbert books, the film’s source material. His love and passion for Dune flow through the film in such subtle tides, like spice flows through the sands of Arrakis. There’s a clear understanding and adoration for Herbert’s texts in the vast scale, grand politics, and extensive emotions, but it’s also present in the minutiae; through phrases and visual motifs that symbolically reflect many of Herbert’s themes and expose latent underlying arcs, Villeneuve builds a compositely faithful adaptation, that packs layers upon layers of deeper intent and meaning in the smaller details of his film.
In the film’s unparalleled, unimaginably extensive scope, Villeneuve exhibits further fidelity to Herbert’s texts. He and cinematographer Greig Fraser go from the gargantuan vista of a world-sized Heighliner starship orbiting a planet and the seemingly endless terrain of the Arrakis desert, to tremendously boundless armies and towering transportation crafts, to solitary figures quietly in conversation and close-ups of a fated boy circling through every feeling of pain, to the minuscule observation of a mouse in the desert and a drop of sweat trickling down its ear. From the macro to the micro — always possessing greater details and specifics of a complex world of politics, danger, and wonder — Villeneuve and co. bring life to the miraculous, absurd, expansive, and marvelous dreamlike world of Herbert’s Dune universe.
At the center of this Dune universe — in his own, Villeneuve-reminiscent story of humanity and conscience — is Paul Atreides, son to Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, the future of House Atreides, a boy coming to age amid a perilous and ever-changing narrative and world, fated with a destiny beyond his own control and imagination. In casting Timothée Chalamet, Villeneuve stated that he was the only choice for the role, and it’s obvious why; Chalamet is Paul Atreides, in every way, through his accurate depiction Paul’s humanity, his intentions, his nuanced body language, his subtle choice of words, and his expressions.
It’s no new feat to see Chalamet delivering another powerhouse performance, he’s essentially set the new standard for himself with his evocative performances over the last few years, but with a story as deeply rooted with themes of prophecy and the struggles of dealing with it, he brings a renowned sense of maturity and depth to his performance; the Gom Jabbar scene and his potent delivery of trepidation over his visions in the tent bring a newly diverse emotional range to his acting that surely cements him as one of the best around.
Connecting into the prophetic nature of Paul’s messianic visions, and latent abilities is the role of Rebecca Ferguson’s Bene Gesserit character, the Lady Jessica, concubine to Duke Leto and mother to Paul. The pivotal reality of Jessica’s character is that in this adaptation, Villeneuve frames a sizable amount of Paul’s arc and the overall journey, through her character and perspective, highlighting Dune as a feminine story; it’s a lot of emotional and narrative weight to carry on a singular character, but Ferguson — as wonderfully adept and prolific as she is — bears it effortlessly, and in doing so, delivers a graceful standout performance.
Paul’s story through the film is showered with visions of fate, talk of prophecy, and “planted superstitions,” as he puts it himself. The Bene Gesserit, the covert sisterhood Jessica comes from, have a belief that someday there will be a mind powerful enough to “bridge space and time,” who could lead everyone into a better future — the Kwisatz Haderach; this ideal person would come as a result of the organization’s secret plotting behind the scenes, in their intermingling and inter-breeding of the bloodlines of the various Houses. When Paul first arrives on Arrakis, he hears chants of the phrase “Lisan al Gaib” directed at him, meaning “The Voice from the Outer World,” superstitions planted on Arrakis by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.
Jessica’s role, as both a Bene Gesserit and a mother to Paul Atreides, is central to Villeneuve’s delivery of the story. Jessica on the outside appears collected and assured — the façade painted by her Bene Gesserit training — but there are subtle flinches, glances, and nuances in Ferguson’s layered performance that gives us a glance into her interior conflict of balancing her role as a mother and partner, with that of a more clouded role of delivering prophecy; this is evinced in a scene between her and Oscar Isaac’s compassionate and sturdy Duke Leto, where they converse about Paul’s safety and future. Isaac brings a warmth to Leto that often parallels Jessica’s more concealed personality, but also similarly manifests in Paul through his humanity, much like how Jessica’s hidden internality exhibits itself in Paul through his quick awakening into maturity later in the film.
The three of them — Chalamet, Ferguson, and Isaac — bring a pivotal sense of humanity to the face of House Atreides, along with Jason Momoa’s badass Duncan Idaho — whose solemn performance also brings a sense of levity to the film — and Josh Brolin’s noble Gurney Halleck; opposite to that is House Harkonnen, built on inhumanity. Where Atreides soldiers protect their people out of love and respect, Harkonnens fight out of fear, for their own survival.
That fear is darkly captured in Stellan Skarsgård’s Colonel Kurtz-reminiscent performance as the imposing Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Like Bautista’s indignant and mercilessly savage Rabban and Dastmalchian’s connivingly ominous Piter — the other two major Harkonnen characters in the film — Skarsgård’s Baron highlights the cruel reality of House Harkonnen, in their beastly and barbaric ways: a clear juxtaposition to the Atreides, and — with the execution of their backed plan — a pivotal parallel in setting up the next film.
Between the Atreides and the Harkonnens, and their distinctly different periods of governing on Arrakis, lie the Fremen, native to the planet, caught up in the political turmoil of the Imperium. Seldom do we see them in the film outside of Paul’s visions — until the very end — but when we do, they are a key aspect of establishing a foundation to understand the world, nature, and customs of Arrakis. While more central characters like Zendaya’s Chani — who occupies Paul’s prophetic dreams and visions — and Javier Bardem’s dignified Stilgar — one of the leaders of the Fremen — introduce us to this world and the potential future of it with Paul’s journey, Villeneuve utilizes Babs Olusanmokun’s Jamis — through Paul’s visions — as a guide through his current journey; in a way, this brings a sense of humanity and understanding to his character, which would’ve been absent were it not for his wise lessons and advice to Paul in his visions.
Although it appears as if Jamis’ wisdom to Paul in his visions are lessons to be learned for future events — and they are, especially for audiences who have read the books — they also manifest as present enlightenment in helping Paul through his journey, existing as both direct and metaphorical instructions. His most profoundly philosophical line (which does not originate from him in the book) comes to Paul in a moment of struggle — “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience. A process that cannot be understood by stopping it. We must move with the flow of the process. We must join it. We must flow with it.” — and I think that Jamis line translates beautifully into capturing the spirit of Villeneuve’s faithful adaptation.
Dune is an experiential cinematic journey; a cerebral, visceral experience that we must naturally flow with to best resonate with and understand. Part one of a larger thematic narrative, it is a foundational adventure that paves way for an even more cinematic story, building a world and introducing to us complex character and politics, all faithful to Herbert’s own words. With pristinely scaled visuals unlike no other film this year, truly otherworldly sound design and tangibly transportive production design, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a film best experienced in a cinema, where it is deemed safe; nothing quite does justice to Hans Zimmer’s divinely alien score, the bone-chilling sound design of the Bene Gesserit voice and Greig Fraser’s epic visuals like watching it in a theater, especially in IMAX — for the best visual experience — and Dolby Atmos — for the best audible experience.
Dune is Denis Villeneuve’s passion project come to life, a faithful and dreamlike adaptation of the first half of Herbert’s Dune book. Like Duke Leto’s lasting line in the film — “Here I am. Here I remain” — Dune: Part One has cemented itself as one of the boldest and greatest cinematic visions brought to the big screen, Villeneuve’s cinematic gift to our generation. With Dune: Part Two now officially confirmed for October 2023, we are surely guaranteed to be left in awe and excitement with the remaining spectacle still to come. “This is only the beginning.” But for now, Dune is here, and here it remains.
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