Preview: Dune (2021)

A world beyond your experience, beyond your imagination

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Jon Spaihts (screenplay), Denis Villeneuve (screenplay), Eric Roth (screenplay)
On general release in the UK from 22 October

Feature adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, about the son of a noble family entrusted with the protection of the most valuable asset and most vital element in the galaxy.

Nat says: ‘Wow’

How do I love thee, Dune? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight for the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love Dune (1984) almost as much, I really do. I’ve loved it almost all my life. But I feel my head being turned by a young, good-looking new arrival who has made my heart soar.

It is Dune (2021), directed by Denis Villeneuve, and it is a love letter to both Dune and me that I cannot ignore. It is a wonderful, dazzingly beautiful piece of work that’s almost too true to the original book for its own good, but whose power and vision is undeniable.

I’m going to really tie myself up in knots trying to explain the plot. So instead, I’ll let Princess Irulan tell you what Dune is all about rather than try to explain it myself.

The biggest difference between Dune (2021) and Dune (1984) is that this is Dune – Part One. Only half the novel has been adapted, as Villeneuve couldn’t compress the whole book into two and half hours. There’s a cliffhanger both in the story and IRL, here, since as of yet, part two hasn’t been filmed. If you don’t go and watch this, there won’t be a part two.

Just between you and me, let me tell you something – there needs to be a part two.

Amazing

The film follows the book fairly closely, both in terms of dialogue and structure. We start on planet Caladan, follow duke’s son Paul Atreides through his training and dreams, as well as his introduction to the Bene Gesserit. We then head off to Arrakis, learn about the Fremen and the spice-mining, before everything goes tits up and everyone’s lives are in danger.

With far more time to play with, Villeneuve gets to explore the politics, religion, society and personal lives of Dune‘s characters in far greater detail than Lynch ever could. He does so in a way truer to the book and using all the skills he’s built up over the past two decades of direction, particularly in visually intense films such as Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – it’s actual quite fascinating to watch his debut, Un 32 août sur terre (1998), and how he shot the desert there and compare it with his desert shoots in Jordan 20 years later to see how he’s evolved. I’m sure the massive budget increases helped, but the photography on this is something extraordinary.

All the same, this is a far-off future with many, many strange things. The Bene Gesserit have their Voice, which enables them to command others; there are human computers – Mentats; people have to wear stillsuits in the desert, recycling and drinking their own body’s moisture or dying within a couple of hours; ornithopters not helicopters are the transport of choice; people wear electronic shields to protect them from bullets, but slow blades (or small flying insect-like ‘hunter seekers’) can penetrate the shields; and Paul is of course having prophetic dreams of the future.

That doesn’t even start to scratch the surface of Dune‘s sci-fi weirdness, but Villeneuve tackles virtually everything the book throws at him, even the things that David Lynch chose not to, and does it with such panache, helped by cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette. Everything looks absolutely incredible and evokes the book’s imagery with ease. Having seen it, it’s now hard to think of any version except Villeneuve’s version being correct.

Equally, he chooses to include things from the book that I’d completely forgotten about, such as the Atreides’ ‘sign language’ that almost made me giddy with happiness as it all came flooding back! The use of subtitles for this and other languages used also helps, since it obviates the need for clunky narration.

Accessible?

I’m really unsure just how much someone who’s not read Dune is going to be able to cope with the script without at least a second viewing. I had no problems as I love Dune freely, as women strive for right. I love it purely, as they turn from praise.

(Honestly, read the book. It’s wonderful.)

But there’s a lot to digest. A lot. There was in The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and other huge fantasy blockbusters before this, but somehow, despite similar amounts of information needing to be processed, it’s the fact that this is such an adult story, not some simple quest for a relic, that makes it this harder. Villeneuve tries his best, but people are people.

Problematically as well, something the movie expects the viewer to work out for herself is that Paul’s visions aren’t necessarily going to come true: he can see all possible futures and so must act in specific ways to make a specific set of possible futures occur – even knowing that in some of those futures, terrible things may happen even if more terrible ones won’t.

Villeneuve’s visual imagination is impeccable, but he’s not a surrealist like Lynch and he shoots dreams like reality, making it harder for the audience to navigate the real and not real. It’s a reasonable choice on his part, but one that does the casual viewer no favours. This is not a movie you can just switch your brain off for.

But Villeneuve and his fellow screenwriters do their best. I do love how great a job they’ve done of exploring this genuinely strange and hard to understand society by staying focused on friendships and family relationships.

Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) have a somewhat formal but still loving relationship, but it’s his relationships with his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) and his mentor Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) where the film really draws you in and makes you think of the characters as real people.

The Atreides’ enemies the Harkonnen, led by Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgård, are no mere caricatures of villainy, no grotesques from Lynch’s dreams. These are genuinely frightening people doing horrible things because of a feudal class system that allows them to. Villeneuve also credits the audience with understanding political machinations – I hope he’s right.

The cast are all uniformly good to great. The Fremen don’t get to show up much and Zendaya’s dull Chani didn’t impress me any more than Sean Young’s did. But Javier Bardem’s Stilgar is fantastic and Chalamet has gone up considerably in my estimation as a result of this, since he does do so well in such a pivotal role.

Surprisingly, it’s Jason Momoa who is the most important cast member. His role is far more significant than I remember it being in the book and he’s a far warmer presence, too, bringing both humour and strength to a character that could easily have been overlooked.

If I’m going to complain about anything it’s that the movie lingers too long on the set-up. There are scenes of action but the story concludes at a slightly awkward point, one arbitrarily chosen by Villeneuve. With that finish point chosen, everything has to fit into the allotted runtime and some of it feels like it’s been allowed to go on longer than necessary.

But this is a movie that’s absolutely wonderful to watch and worth waiting for. This feels like the Star Wars of the future, just one that’s absolutely not aimed at children.

“A world beyond your experience, beyond your imagination” was the tagline of Dune (1984). This really is.

Author

  • The Gloria Steinem of the jumpsuit set. Russian ballerina-assassin. Scarlett Johansson look-alike. TMINE's publisher and Official Movie Reviewer in Residence. I've written for numerous magazines, including Death Ray and Filmstar, and I've been a contributor to TMINE since I was at university and first discovered I really wanted to write about movies, oh so many years ago. Sob.