For being such an influential piece of Science Fiction storytelling, I must admit I have very little history with Frank Herbert’s Dune. I was aware of David Lynch’s adaptation, and I’ve recently been dipping my toes into the impressive mythos of the original novel.
It works in archetypes that feel exceedingly familiar because they’ve helped lay the groundwork for modern sci-fi as we know it. In a contemporary landscape that’s shifted toward stories highlighting the universality of heroism, there’s something intriguing about a story willing to dig into the ancient monomyths that have remained foundational for many cultures.
There’s the tradition of the chosen one – in this case, young heir apparent Paul Atreides (Timothee Chamalet) – who has untapped potential as well as pedigree that might make him the Messiah who has been prophesied about for generations.
This overtly spiritual language would certainly inform the worldbuilding of Star Wars and the hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker, conceived by George Lucas and ultimately captivating the world over. This is how Dune indirectly affected my entire childhood and I see it so clearly now.
Because Dune’s reputation precedes it and for people like director Denis Villeneuve, the passion for this material is palpable. Obviously, his aspirations are to do justice to a piece of literature while giving it a visual resonance for a new generation.
As this is the man who gave us the worlds of Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Dune is hardly an aesthetic surprise. I know, since he is an avid cinephile, Lawrence of Arabia is a major touchstone for his latest film, and given the indelible desert locales, the comparison seems inevitable. After all, both of these films aspire for vast grandeur with the kind of scope other films merely dream of.
Villeneuve’s sleek metallic drabness serves him again. It’s at one time immaculate and sometimes a bit soulless. However, this is less a full-on criticism and more so indicative of epics in the 21st century. In other words, it doesn’t have the vibrancy of Lawrence or the golden hues. Still, there’s a vague kind of wonder when we watch it blending real-life locations with digital magic while also underlining this ominous sense of oppression.
My mind drifts easily to the oddly bewitching bagpipe and drum-infused score of Hans Zimmer. Like the organ in Interstellar, this rather unique choice does wonders in providing a layered soundscape to evoke the ever-expanding world in front of us. Zimmer’s work takes the individual images and transforms them into a full-bodied experience, lending some drama and emotion to a mise en scene otherwise running the risk of aloofness.
Equally important is how famed elements like the sandworms or bits of technology are realized onscreen. Oftentimes this can be a detriment because these visions no longer live in the mind’s eye, once a creator has brought them into reality. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t marvel both at Herbert’s imagination and also how they have been brought to us.
Although Timothee Chalamet is not my favorite actor, he functions as a fine avatar throughout this movie. Because he is the character Villeneuve identifies with, and he is our way into a story. Paul’s father (Oscar Isaac) and his family are displaced and called upon to govern the planet of Arrakis vacated by the Harkonnen, a brutish people who gained exorbitant wealth, but not without repercussion.
Like all the grandest stories, it has this galactic scale but maintains a level of relational intimacy. It could work in no other fashion. It’s a pleasure to see Rebecca Ferguson given such a striking role that at first glance feels so subordinate but is almost covertly imbued with so much power. Because she is a member of the line of female Truth Sayers, even going so far as to pass down their sacred abilities to her adolescent son. In some fashion, Paul is a two-culture kid, different from others, and situated to be a priestly king, blending his two unique bloodlines. This pervasive biblical language is hard to totally dismiss.
Stellan Skarsgaard and Charlotte Rampling show up almost unrecognizably and since I have no context for their characters, I appreciated their level of menace. It makes no difference whether they are good or bad. They are not to be trifled with. Jason Momoa arguably has an easier role, but still, he must be a likable mentor figure and a formidable warrior. He handles both with casual aplomb bringing a refreshing lightness to the movie which could otherwise be a completely dour affair.
It is these characters against this backdrop who begin to suggest the primary thematic ideas passed down from Herbert and taken up by Villeneuve. There are themes ranging all over the spectrum from familiar social and political dynamics, wars of cultural influence, and certainly religious omens. There’s is something somehow Medieval and Machiavellian about it. It is a world of royals, serfs, and fiefdoms, and stratified hierarchies jockeying for survival.
As alluded to before, one of the most overt representations has to do with the Fremen, a people native to the desserts of Arakkis who called the sand-swept world home long before their captors came to rule it. The Fremen, identified with a mostly illusory Zendaya, are rather reminiscent of the Tusken Raiders, although they are more charismatic and given a human face. They are fierce, loyal, attuned to the desert, and they know the treachery that comes with betrayal and the fundamental struggle to survive.
The most unsurprising spoiler might be that this is, in fact, only part 1 of what’s envisioned to be a long saga. I’m hopeful that it might lithely move through the imminent films ahead instead of totally obliterating everything in its wake like a giant sandworm. Because this is the perpetuated fallacy of many serialized blockbusters. Hopefully Herbert’s work won’t suffer the same grisly fate signified by bloated runtimes and oversaturation. If you remember, David Lean only ever made one Lawrence of Arabia, and somehow I’m content with that. Star Wars is a slightly different story, but that’s a subject for another time.