‘Dune’ brings cerebral fantasy sci-fi to the screen like no other



“Dune” has surely cemented director Denis Villeneuve as one of the most important directors working in Hollywood today. Long considered to be unfilmable, Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel of the same name has been held in reverence for many decades as one of the all-time greats of science fiction. And yet, though I’m a lover of science fiction, I cannot count myself among its legions of fans. Having never read the book, I’m fortunately left with no choice other than to evaluate Villeneuve’s “Dune” as its own film and nothing more.

Set in the mystical year of 10191, we follow a young man named Paul Atreides. As the film begins, the emperor of an all-powerful imperium encompassing the known universe bestows upon House Atreides control of the desert planet Arrakis: the only planet where an impossibly valuable substance known as “spice” can be found. Now positioned at the heart of a trade upon which all of humanity depends, Paul and his family of House Atreides must contend with the innumerable challenges that face them: the rebellious Fremen warriors native to Arrakis who dominate the desert, the goliath sandworms which roam the planet and the villainous rival House Harkonnen, governed by the bloated and brutal Baron Harkonnen.

Distilling the plot of “Dune” into the above paragraph was a challenge — distilling the whole of Frank Herbert’s opus into a film has long been regarded as a sisyphean affair (see previous attempts by Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch). And yet, with the utmost thoughtfulness indicative of his lifelong adoration for the source material, it would seem to me that Villeneuve has managed it — though not all of it, of course. As many have pointed out, much had to be pruned from Herbert’s novel in order to bring his vision to life on the screen. Watching the film, it’s rather apparent where certain characters and elements of the world mostly unexplored in the film would have probably played a larger part in the novel. And this is only the first installment in what hopefully becomes a series of “Dune” films; Villeneuve has expressed interest in further installments, and a sequel was greenlit just the other day.

Oddly enough, there is something about this general vagueness that I found sincerely captivating. For instance, I like how we never see the emperor — giving the impression of an ethereal yet absolute governing body. I like how little explanation we’re given for certain things, such as the various technologies we see the characters interact with in the film. And I like how the explanations which we are allowed are often just detailed enough to serve their purpose — never squandering the world’s intrigue by crossing into the verbose and technical.

In fact, the film very much taps into something in this vein which I really love but have rarely seen explored compellingly: that being science fiction which is so outlandish that it crosses over not only into the realm of fantasy, but also into the ambiguous and abstract. The most prominent example of this — perhaps counter to what I’ve just said — would probably be “Star Wars.” But “Star Wars” doesn’t really embody what I have in mind; it doesn’t go far enough. It still feels too familiar — too safe. Whereas Villeneuve’s “Dune” will have you awed not only by its stunning visual displays and earth-shattering sound, but by the sheer alienation which it conveys through its portrayal of societies and peoples foreign beyond comprehension.

The sets and costumes are remarkable; possibly among the most striking which I can recall from any film. Hans Zimmer has outdone himself with this score — one which I’d call perfect for this film and no other. The cinematography is breathtaking. The film is simply a marvel to behold, and it undoubtedly demands to be seen in theaters.

So where does it falter? Well, it pains me to say it, but the script is where the film fails. The dialogue is painfully lackluster; delicate at times and downright bad at others. I’d wager that the most eloquent lines spoken were probably lifted directly from the text, and that the film’s more juvenile motifs, such as the embarrassingly hokey “desert power” line, were probably courtesy of the screenwriters.

I could look to other examples, such as Gurney (Josh Brolin) screaming in Paul’s face about how “inhuman” and “brutal” the Harkonnens are whilst chewing the scenery with greater voracity than a sandworm. Or Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) describing how the Fremen “fight like demons” in a manner I can only call unconvincing. Or my favorite: Rebecca Ferguson’s character of Jessica Atreides turns to Paul after they escape a sandworm attack. They sit on the rocks mere meters away from its wrath, both gazing into the beast’s maw. The worm plunges back into the dunes, leaving them to their respite. And what does Jessica have to say to her son, having just stared down the barrel of a desert god?

“That was intense.”

Yeah, it was. It was intense. Until you went and sullied the moment by pointing out how intense it was. It should be the audience’s job to say that. You’d turn to your friend in the theater and go “that was intense.” The character in the film’s not meant to do that. Maybe in a Marvel movie. But in this? The character ought to be utterly inert after an encounter like that, and certainly in no mind to turn to her son and say something so idiotic.

I should clarify that this is in equal parts a problem with the writing and a problem with the acting. I struggle to recall specific examples which would appear just as laughable in written form as they do in the film, and that’s because the actors’ delivery of these lines often exacerbates what is already questionable material. I don’t know that the actors are to blame for this; on account of the film’s consistent awkwardness, I suspect that they may have been directed to act in this way.

And yet miraculously, while lackluster writing is more often than not a death sentence in my view, “Dune” emerges comparatively unscathed by it: a testament to Villeneuve’s formidable filmmaking prowess. Having previously directed “Blade Runner 2049,” which remains my favorite sci-fi film of the 2010s, Villeneuve is now preparing to make his mark on the 2020s with his definitive adaptation of the “Dune” saga. All things considered, the film is an easy recommendation from me. I know I’ll be there opening day for “Dune: Part Two.”