In the past five years, French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has established himself as a sci-fi auteur with an approach to scale and tone that makes him the only logical choice to tackle a new adaptation of “Dune,” the bestselling and wildly influential 1965 sci-fi/fantasy novel by Frank Herbert, which spawned five sequel books.
In 2016, Villeneuve put his unique stamp on sci-fi cinema with the meditative, empathetic alien invasion film, “Arrival,” and in 2017, with the “Blade Runner” sequel “Blade Runner 2049,” he proved he could take a beloved property and bring it into a modern cinematic purview with style for days and an appropriately weighty thematic heft.
From Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” (never made) to David Lynch’s “Dune” (reviled, a flop, disowned and now a cult classic), Herbert’s novel of spice and sandworms, inspired by the dunes of the Oregon coast and rumored experiments with magic mushrooms, has long proved a challenging property to bring to the big screen. But with his signature epic scale and formidable tone, Villeneuve has crafted the kind of large-format adaptation that “Dune” deserves.
Especially on a massive IMAX screen, it’s the sheer size and scope of Villeneuve’s “Dune” that initially impresses, human beings dwarfed by the size of the gaping maws of spaceships (and/or sandworms) engulfed in the cavernous spaces of brutalist concrete structures. But the scale of the emotions, politics and story are decidedly human.
Villeneuve, alongside co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, have a tremendous amount of world-building to do in the script, laying out the political power struggles over the planet Arrakis, the source of the life-giving and spaceflight-enabling spice, and the mystical forces at play behind the scenes.
Timothee Chalamet takes on the role of the young hero Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and the powerful Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the religious sisterhood the Bene Gesserit who has been training her son in the way of her powerful sect, teaching him to use “the voice” for mind control.
At the outset of the film, which is labeled “Part One,” immediately suggesting a continuation of the franchise, House Atreides is tasked by the Emperor to take over spice-mining operations on Arrakis, which has been under the brutal control of House Harkonnen for years. When Paul and his parents arrive on Arrakis and he first encounters the desert people called the Fremen, their eyes glowing blue thanks to spice exposure, all of Paul’s mysterious dreams and visions start to make sense.
He feels drawn to the Fremen, to their ways, to the sand that moves like water, and his psychic connection to them suggests that he may, in fact, be their long-anticipated messiah. “Dune” is heavy-duty, myth-making and serious sci-fi world-building, and Villeneuve approaches it with the intensity and solemnity that has marked his previous films.
This is not an adventure romp laced with humor like “Star Wars,” nor is it the kind of straight-faced camp that makes Lynch’s “Dune” strangely charming. Villeneuve approaches Herbert’s text with a sense of almost religious reverence, carefully creating an intoxicatingly mysterious and undeniably immersive world.
The way we are beckoned into the dreamlike world of “Dune,” captivated by the propulsive, percussive beat of Hans Zimmer’s exhilarating score, mimics the journey of Paul himself, inexplicably drawn to the desert of Arrakis and its people. The end of “Dune” declares that “this is only the beginning,” leaving us with the tantalizing possibilities of what’s to come in Part Two.
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