This isn’t the first time the classic science fiction series has been brought to the big screen, but this time Dune finally got the movie it deserved. Legendary Productions and director Denis Villeneuve put together a team, both in front of and behind the camera, that did justice to Frank Herbert’s invaluable contribution to the genre. It is not an easy task to convert an epic story like this to a visual medium. Villeneuve’s attempt did just what it needed to do. Dune captured the feeling of the novel without letting it strangle the creative freedom necessary to shift artforms. The franchise is likely going to get it’s very own cinematic universe and this was the perfect way to begin.
Dune is out in theaters now and available to stream on HBO Max through November 21st.
Story – Stick to the Plan
Frank Herbert’s vision did most of the heavy lifting here, but Villeneuve and the other writers on Dune executed a complicated narrative elegantly. Anyone who has seen a movie adapted from a novel knows the risks involved here. I can name less than a handful of truly successful attempts and far too many failures. Dune checked all the boxes and avoided many pitfalls.
First of all, I think the majority of the audience who hasn’t read the book will still completely understand and connect with this story and these characters. It may just be the beginning, but there’s a whole lot to soak in with part one. I’m rarely a fan of a movie that starts with narration, but sometimes it has to be done. There are just too many threads to start in this franchise. Chani, portrayed by Zendaya, starts the film by introducing the audience to Arrakis, the real name of the planet known as Dune. The Harkonnens have ruled Arrakis with an iron fist for decades, draining it of its invaluable “spice” and tormenting its indigenous population of warriors.
While this device of narration gives the audience crucial information about the universe of this film, it also introduces an important aspect of the book. Before Paul Atreides, our protagonist, ever meets Chani, he has recurring dreams about her and the desert planet she is from. As the narration ends and Chani retreats into a dark cave with other insurgents, Paul awakes from a dream on the far away planet of Caladan.
Frank Herbert crafted a complicated plot and a universe so detailed it seems impossible to reproduce. I won’t say Dune is perfect, but Villeneuve’s interpretation and adaptation blows away any other attempt to date. And there have been several. David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation attempted to cover the sprawling story in a single two hour campy mess of a film. Suffice to say, it didn’t quite work.
While the film is officially just titled Dune, Villeneuve included the subtitle Part One in the films title screen. Thankfully, by splitting the story into two parts, Villeneuve slowed down and made sure to expand on Frank Herbert’s world. While Part Two was not technically confirmed until several days after the release of Dune, it’s obvious Legendary and Warner Brothers were quite confident in its inevitable success.
Characters and Performances – Worth the Price
Every character in Dune drips with personality. The immaculate casting didn’t hurt, but the credit has to go back to Villeneuve and his ability to illustrate characters with hundreds of pages of development in a two-hour window. It’s genuinely surprising that such a star-studded cast so flawlessly fit into their roles. I expected a few of the popular actors to feel forced, but I found the opposite. Every performance was passionate and rich.
The Harkonnens and their minions were particularly vile. It’s hard to picture a villain as twisted as the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Stellen Skarsgard reveled in the experience of playing such an evil character. In an interview with The Wrap, Dune’s makeup artist, Donald Mowat, explained Skarsgard’s desire to appear nude in more scenes.
Stellan just loved being naked as the Baron. We all used to kill ourselves laughing when Stellan would ask for more nude scenes. He felt, quite correctly, that the Baron appeared more frightening and dangerous unclothed than cloaked in robes or armor. So he was always asking for more nudity.
As a fan of the book, I have to give a bit of a shoutout to some of the characters that had to be left out of Dune due to obvious time constraints. Peter de Vries, the Baron’s Mentat (a sort of hyper-intelligent advisor), didn’t get nearly the screen time he deserved. David Dastmalchian was perfect casting, but alas, there wasn’t time to explore that conniving character. I also felt I wanted more from Paul’s mentor and surrogate older brother, Duncan Idaho. Some characters just couldn’t get the love they deserved, and for the good of the movie, their stories had to be amended.
Editing and Pacing – Take Your Time
Finding the pace for an epic tale like Dune must be daunting. So much story has to fit in a package under three hours. For the most part, Villeneuve does an excellent job keeping the the tempo up. Dune comes in at 156 minutes. That’s a long time to keep an audience engaged, but it’s not a problem for this film. I never felt a drag and there was never a single wasted scene. By the time the two and a half hours were up, I felt as though I’d just sat down.
The flashback or, in this case, flash forward is often a dreaded tool to any cinephile. They are often expositionary, unnecessary, and uninteresting. More often than not, they are also edited poorly and pull the audience from the experience. Considering the importance of premonitions to the plot of Dune, leaving them out was not an option. Villeneuve chose to integrate the visions into the structure of the film so that they were less jarring. To avoid spoilers I’ll stick to the example I used earlier from the opening of the film. Unknown to the audience, the first scene of the film is actually a vision. After the title screen transition, Paul Atreides awakes from this vision dream and the linear events of the film unfold.
Cinematography and Sound – The Sands of Arrakis
One of the most crucial aspects of any science-fiction film is their special effects. Dune is no different and special effects supervisor Paul Lambert didn’t disappoint. He apparently created a new type of green screen that wasn’t green at all. Detailed in a piece at Wired, this new technique was dubbed sandscreen by the special effects team. It’s simple enough. Just change green to sand beige.
This seemingly inconsequential change made the transition from the sand dune filled shots from locations in Jordan and Abu Dhabi, and the VFX shots using the sandscreens seamless. The results of this technique are plain to see. The legendary, and endlessly influential, sandworms of Arrakis feel immense and real. The various types of flying contraptions look right at home in the monochrome light brown of the desert.
In combination with the industrious VFX team, cinematographer Greig Fraser, Hans Zimmer, and the sound design team made the world of Dune buzz with life. In that same informative piece at Wired, the sound team was apparently focused on capturing a “fake documentary realism” soundscape. The effect created a surprisingly mystical feeling atmosphere. Out of the desert, the dark and foreboding color schemes and dank worlds were highlighted by the slow and methodical camera work. Attention to detail is the name of the game with Dune. Hans Zimmer, of course, plotted the way with a fresh techno-mystical style that came off as modern as it was epic. No surprise there.