Denis Villeneuve is a great director. He proves this with each new movie of his. When it became known that he was to direct a new film based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 cult sci-fi novel Dune, it was difficult not to get excited. The Dune book series is beloved by many, and a proper film franchise about its world could approach the level of iconic films and shows like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Measuring whatever Villeneuve does to these is inevitable, however, many would argue that Herbert’s work surpasses other franchises in literary qualities and thematic depth and, therefore, the Dune films might be even better than their fantasy and sci-fi predecessors.
Yet many have tried to adapt the Dune books for the screen and not to considerable success. There is the 1984 Dune directed by David Lynch, the year 2000 Frank Herbert’s Dune directed by Vittorio Storaro and the 2003 mini-series Children of Dune directed by Greg Yaitanes. All of them have their charm but their faults – mainly lousy storytelling and ineffective world-building – are more memorable. This is a testament to the challenges that great filmmakers face when they approach Herbert’s work. Yet, with the great fantasy and sci-fi franchises having paved the road, it seems that the time is ripe for another attempt and that Villeneuve may be the visionary director capable of delivering a cinematic version of Dune that will be overwhelmingly good. This review of his 2021 Dune film is largely flattering and writing it was a rare pleasure; though, towards the end, it does explore some of the faults of the film and the dangers for this franchise.
Before the good part begins, however, it seems that we have to address something tedious that the mores of this day and age push at the forefront of public discourse: the question of race. Villeneuve’s Dune has already managed to ruffle the feathers of those obsessed with race. For one thing, the story is regarded as a “white saviour” one, meaning that a white character goes to the land of oppressed people of colour and releases and empowers them. It is true that the hero of the story, Paul Atreides, does go to the planet Arrakis, where he becomes the leader of the native population, called the Fremen, who, because of the exceedingly hot climate of the planet, are dark of skin. For some, this perpetuates the narrative of people of colour being weak and in need of a white saviour, which is, in a sense, a western, white supremacist way of looking on race roles.
However, those commentators either have failed to notice, or have chosen to ignore, the fact that there are characters in the film, who are played by people of colour and who are not in subservient position: the Imperial Herald of the Change, the Imperial Judge of the Change Linet Kynes, the Warmaster Duncan Idaho, the mentat and Master of Assassins Thufir Hawat. This shows that in the Dune universe skin colour does not determine one’s position in society. Moreover, it is quite obvious that the really, really villainous characters in the film – the members and servants of the House Harkonnen and the Imperial Army of Sardaukar – are very white indeed, which may enable the argument that the film offers a racist representation of white people as the perpetual oppressors. Furthermore, for those who know Herbert’s writing, it is clear that the Fremen are not as innocent and powerless as they seem, and in the later books they become the oppressors. So it is more complex. However, even if it were a “white saviour” narrative, the book series is popular and exciting and deservers a just cinematic version. For those who are unhappy with the story, they are very welcome to write their own sci-fi books and film scripts, filled with whatever ideas about race they see fit, and see how well – or badly – they do on the market.
Another problem for those obsessed with race is that many people of colour die in this film. This is true: Shadout Mapes, Dr Yueh, Duncan Idaho, the Fremen Jamis, Liet Kynes are all murdered and none of them is white. But this is the way of the story. If having characters played by people of colour killed is bad, then these parts should be given to white actors. Yet then the problem will be that actors of colour are not being given parts. Moreover, this complaint exposes a strange and somewhat racist idea that having white characters murdered is more acceptable than having such fate befall characters of colour. Whoever has these thoughts, he will do well to examine his moral compass. In any case, it is clear that one film cannot please everybody, nor should it try to do so.
Now that this is out of the way, we can look at the more exciting aspects of the film. As hinted at above, Frank Herbert’s books are a notoriously challenging material to adapt, mainly because so much of his prose is internal monologue, at places approaching stream of consciousness. The narrator is omniscient and jumps from one character to the next, changing points of view sometimes with every new sentence; and many of these sentences cram the reader’s mind with consequential information. David Lynch tried to solve the problem of filming this by using voiceover, the viewers hearing the characters’ thoughts in the pauses of the actual conversation. Although it was effective at places, it was largely heavy, distracting and uncinematic. Villeneuve goes in the opposite direction. He relies on the actors’ ability to convey subtext through the subtleties of their performance, whilst using almost no voiceover and, instead, filling the film with many dream- and vision-sequences of beautifully composed shots and informing editing. While it is impossible to translate perfectly Herbert’s cerebral novel to screen, it is difficult to imagine a better cinematic version than what Villeneuve has achieved.
This is not surprising, for Dune gives the Canadian director the perfect chance to flex his muscles. The story is about people and the conflicts between them, but although we see much necessary intimacy, their interactions are played on the grand-scale background of faraway planets, huge seas and deserts, monumental palaces and looming spaceships. And few people do large scale as well as Villeneuve. Having proved this in Arrival (2016) and in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), he surpasses himself in this film. The shots of seashell- or seed-like spaceships oppressed by the titans of planets above them are particularly memorable, as are those of small human figures in the midst not only of terrible nature, but also of ancient and august buildings that illustrate the smallness and insignificance of mere humans in the vast, cold universe.
Grand simplicity is the greatest of extravagances, and the contributions of cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette are crucial for achieving Villeneuve’s vision. Sci-fi on screen often feels camp and cartoonish and, consequently, immature. With the risk of uttering heresy, this applies to both Star Trek and Star Wars. This used to be the case with fantasy too, until it matured with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Maybe high-sci-fi will mature with this version of Dune. Almost everything in it looks just so real. The costumes are the logical products of the culture and environment of the people who wear them; the same applies to their buildings and technology, which are organic extensions of the stark landscape of the planets Arrakis, Caladan or Salusa Secundus. With just one film, Villeneuve and his team have managed to create a world that is instantly recognisable, like those of the other great fantasy and sci-fi franchises.
One let-down that must be noted is the blue eyes. The eyes of people who use the substance produced by the giant sand worms on the planet Arrakis, called spice melange, change colour: they become blue, but this happens not only to the iris, but to the lens and sclera as well. Disappointingly, the blue eyes in this film do not look organic at all. It is an obvious bluish colouring added in post-production, and, when all the rest of the shot has gone through numerous filters to look yellowish or red, the way the blue eyes stand out is jarring and looks a bit cheap. Changing the eyes of the actor is difficult and dangerous, since the eyes play such an important role in their performance. Yet now there are bigger coloured eye lenses that go beyond the iris over the sclera; or they could have made the white of the sclera a darker blue than the one of the iris, this way making the eyes more unsettling. In any case, the option they have chosen in the film is not on the level of its other striking visuals.
Certainly, the film should be seen on the big screen for these visuals, but also for its music and sound design that contribute much to the sensory experience. The composer is the legend Hans Zimmer who, together with his team, has tried to create an otherworldly soundtrack of bizarre sounds produced with unknown musical instruments. The music is certainly quite appropriate but, strangely enough, it is not overwhelming. This does not mean that it is bad, on the contrary, but it is surprising, because in almost all his films Zimmer takes over a scene or two, making his music the dominant player. He did this in Angels & Demons (2009), Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014), among many others. Maybe Villeneuve is a director who does not allow for one aspect of the film to overwhelm a scene, or maybe Zimmer is saving his strength for the climactic scenes of Dune: Part Two.
The part of the film that almost made me climax was the Bene Gesserit sequence. In Herbert’s world, the Bene Gesserit is an arcane order of witches, who profess to serve the Emperor and the great houses, but in truth manipulate politics to their own ends. This exclusively female order and the Spacing Guild – its male counterpart – are the clearest manifestations of Carl Jung’s influence on Frank Herbert and the latter’s fascination with the masculine-feminine archetypes. In the Dune film, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam and some of her sisters arrive on Caladan to put the hero Paul to a test that will decide whether he should be allowed to live or be put to death. Every shot in this sequence of scenes is like a painting, and it is underlined by Zimmer’s most haunting piece for the film. The spaceship, with which the witches arrive in the dead of a tempestuous night, is in the shape of a cocoons, the bottom of which opens like a luminous womb. The Bene Gesserit sisters who emerge from it are wrapped in billowing cloaks, also like cocoons. And the scene, in which the Reverent Mother puts Paul to the test, is shot and edited in the most meticulous of ways that reflects the power-play between the two characters. This sisterhood is so mighty and mysterious, and the way Villeneuve envisions it is so captivating, that it is no wonder that HBO have decided to produce a TV series that explores the origins of the order, with Villeneuve as an executive producer and director of the pilot episode. It is difficult to get excited about any new show in these times overdosed on sometimes mediocre and usually bad television, but this show does sound exciting indeed.
Of course, one of the main reasons for which the Bene Gesserit sequence works so well is Charlotte Rampling, who plays the Reverent Mother. Rampling is an iconic actress with a distinctive voice, who manages to combine deadly power and the shadow of seductive femininity in a single gesture: the way she holds the Gom Jabbar, the poison needle, with which she may murder Paul. The interesting thing is that Villeneuve has decided to cover her head with a beaded net, hiding much of the expressive face of one of the most revered actresses of our time, making the gleam of her eyes the focal point in the frame. This is a daring decision that contributed to the mysterious atmosphere of the scene.
The Reverent Mother is not the only perfectly-cast character in this film. Most of the chosen actors are quite appropriate for their roles. Tomothée Chalamet is a delicate actor who does wonderful job when cast in the right part, as he did in, for instance, Little Women (2019) and Call Me by Your Name (2017), and it seems that the role of Paul Atreides is one of them. Stellan Skarsgård plays the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and revels in being scary and repulsive. In the book, the character Dr Liet Kynes is a white male, but here it is played by the black actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who does a wonderful job. Javier Bardem basically plays Javier Bardem, so he is a success as well. Some of the actors, like Josh Brolin, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Zendaya, are not given the chance to shine, but maybe they will in the second Dune film. This, sadly, will not be the case with Oscar Isaac, who plays Duke Leto, Paul’s father, and Chang Chen, who plays Dr Yueh, because both of them perish in the first film, without us really seeing enough of their character arch. One hopes that there will be a longer director’s cut, which might do them more justice.
And length is one of the major problems of the film. It feels as if it should have been either somewhat shorter or with another twenty or thirty minutes longer. Aside from the lamentable underdevelopment of some of the characters, its current length denies the viewers information about the complex world of Dune that would have made the film less Byzantine to those unfamiliar with the source material. Also, it opens with a prologue sequence, in which the character Chani introduces her world, the planet Arrakis. Yet albeit visually striking, it is rushed and confusing. In contrast, the prologue of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring took its time and prepared the viewers for entering a vast and complex world.
Again unlike The Fellowship, Dune ends on a wrong beat. The story of Paul Atreides evolves in three books, and the 2021 film is based on the first half of the first of these books, so it is natural not to get a full sense of completion. However, this does not mean that a part of a film franchise can’t have its own satisfactory ending. The Fellowship of the Ring ends with the breaking of the Fellowship and the two groups taking two different paths of peril. The Two Towers ends with the victory at Helm’s Deep and the knowledge that the great battle is about to begin. Dune ends with Paul and his mother meeting the Fremen after a dangerous journey in the desert, making their first steps in their world and… that’s it. We’re left wanting more, but not in a good way. It would have felt more satisfying if the film had ended with Paul and his mother escaping from the clutches of the evil Baron and entering the desert on their own; or after getting to know the Fremen and going through a challenge with them. The former option is the better one, for the latter would have made the film far too long. The ending that Villeneuve has chosen, however, makes the film feel more like an episode of a TV series, rather than a complete movie.
The other problem with the film is that it sanitises the source material. The world of Dune is brutal, filled with war, torture and assassinations. This does not mean that the film should be as violent as, say, Game of Thrones, nor that it should rely on cheap gore. Yet, being PG-13 rated, much necessary blood has been spared to the audience. Another sinister aspect of the book, which has been removed, is that the Baron Vladimir is a paedophile who regularly rapes – and sometimes murders – little boys. As said above, Stellan Skarsgård does a wonderful job in portraying a monster, and maybe both he and Villeneuve decided that making the Baron a disgusting paedo would repulse many of the audience and probably anger some LGBTQ+ activists, who will say that portraying a gay character as a paedophile is offensive. Yet Herbert underlined the Baron’s horrible sexual appetites in almost every scene he appeared in, making it an important dimension of this character who is supposed to be the supreme predator. True, the Baron is attended by some prepubescent, androgynous boys in the film, and maybe Villeneuve decided that this is enough of a hint. But still, the lack of this horrible aspect of the character feels unfaithful to Herbert’s creation.
This leads us to the Islamic references that abound in the book but are toned down in the film. Frank Herbert was fascinated by Islam and the Middle East, and their influence is not only on the exotic surface of his work but is an integral aspect of the story as well. Much of the vocabulary he used, the organisation of society and the beliefs and customs were influenced by his explorations of Islam. This is watered down in the film, most notably with the failure to use the word “jihad” that is crucial to the plot. This was probably done, again, with the desire not to offend, but it is offensive to Herbert’s work and his readers.
Yet even with these faults, the 2021 Dune film is a remarkable achievement. Perhaps the reason for this is that Villeneuve is an ardent fan of the books who basically has made the film he wanted to watch. It is a complex movie, based on an even more complex book, and some viewers, accustomed to the Marvel and DC fast-food screen vomit, will be repelled by its slower pace and the tangled web of politics. But the producers of the films should come to terms with the fact that they cannot satisfy everybody. Frank Herbert’s world gives Villeneuve the opportunity to create a series of masterpieces and HBO and Warner Brothers the chance to create a new excellent – and lucrative – franchise. Let us hope that Villeneuve will film not only the second half of the first book, but the five volumes after it as well.
‘Dune: A Grand Beginning’ is an article written by Kyril Buhowski. You can follow Kyril Buhowski on Instagram.