Dune Review: A Visceral Theme Park Ride For the Aesthete

Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel is a sensory treat meant for the big screen.
Dune Review:  A Visceral Theme Park Ride For the Aesthete

Directed by: Dennis Villeneuve

Writer: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth, Frank Herbert

Cast: Timotheé Chalamét, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin  

Cinematography: Greig Fraser

Edited by: Joe Walker

Production Design: Patrice Vermette

It's impossible not to enjoy something like Dune after all these months of being away from the big screen. It's not the first film to be released since the pandemic, but it's a film that involves the spectator on a pure sensory level. It's a visceral theme park ride for the aesthete, that resembles contemporary art more than it resembles a modern day blockbuster. You could be in a museum viewing experiential video on a triptych screen, except it's a swords and sorcery action-adventure with the biggest Hollywood stars. It feels like a triumph, and half the battle won. 

Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's science fiction novel has opened worldwide with the brute force of a tentpole release. (The noon show I went for in a South Kolkata IMAX had nerds in the audience who discussed Easter Eggs in hushed tones as they watched the film). But unlike the generic visual style—or no style at all—that has come to define, say, the superhero films, Dune has a distinct, minimalistic design that bear the fingerprints of its maker (Arrival, Blade Runner).

Partly it has to do with the source material itself. Herbert's novel, published in 1965, is something of a bible for sf fans, and a source of endless allure for filmmakers—adventures that have never ended well. The 1984 adaptation by David Lynch was a misfire pretty much disowned by the director, while Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodowroski's failed project is the stuff of legends and the subject of a fascinating documentary–the proposed cast and crew included the likes of Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Pink Floyd and HR Giger.

Given the text—long considered 'unfilmable'—it's not surprising that both directors who tried their hands were practising surrealists of their time. I haven't read the novel, but surrealism must have felt like the right approach for something as mind bending as Dune. Equipped with resources unavailable at that time, Villeneuve has gone the opposite way with his two-parter (and according to him closer to the spirit of the books). Along with the cinematographer, production designer and costume department, the director has tried to realise the world of Dune in real, physical terms, made possible by the fact that he chose to work with real sets as much as possible, as opposed to relying wholly on CGI. 

What is this world like? We are in a planetary system, with major and minor Houses fighting over control of Arrakis, the titular desert planet with harsh, inhospitable conditions but also the one thing that everyone is after: a spice they call melange, a kind of pyschotropic drug central to the survival of this Duniverse.

Timothee Chalamet's Paul Atreides is at the centre of the story–the chosen one, with lineage from both his parents: son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), patriarch of House Atreides and Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson), who comes from a pedigree of mystical women. The Atreides' are rivalled by the Harkonnens, headed by Stellan Skarsgard's Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a disturbingly creepy villain who looks like a cross between Brando from Apocalypse Now and an obese Scandinavian death metal band member. There's a stunning wide shot where we see him levitate in his flowing gown and the full horror of his appearance is revealed. It hardly lasts for a few seconds, but the image haunts you.

Like that scene, Villeneuve (who would have read Herbert's novel in his youth and have lived with these images in his head since) demonstrates a purity of vision and restrain throughout Dune. He pares down the world-building without losing on the fun. There's cool stuff, like the electric buzz of the Holtzman shields, a protective armour that sparks like the clash of lightsabers. And the most fascinating of them all are the sand worm, "the largest living being in Arrakis", a giant organism that lives deep under the desert but attacks the moment it catches rhythmic movements on the surface. (The Fremens, natives of Arrakis, have found a way around sand worms by walking in irregular dance-like steps.)

Arrakis, with its unique landscape and environment (sand storms are common), is the centrepiece of Dune. It builds anticipation and takes a while for the action to shift there. It's almost as if we long to be in the mystical, dangerous planet as much as Paul. The character played by Chalamet, who looks like a tortured goth prince, is haunted by recurring dreams of a native desert girl (Zendaya)–the dunes beckon him. There's a sense of wonder and discovery when he sets foot in Arrakis, but he has loftier responsibilities.

Herbert's material is laced with political allegory about Colonialism and loaded concepts of ecological balance–things that can get easily devolve into unintelligible mumbo jumbo in a Hollywood blockbuster. Villeneuve's film, thankfully, is able to bypass suchlike with images and sounds that hit you with a primal force. Hans Zimmer rises to the occasion, delivering a whopper of score that  envelopes Dune in a kind of aural scape. It helps that there are enjoyable star turns, like Jason Momoa as Paul's godfather figure, who brings a levity in his scenes, and Javier Bardem, as the leader of a band of Fremen, who gets a memorable intro–he spits in front of the emperor, but far from an insult, it's meant as a gift of gratitude in the desert planet where spit and sweat are recycled as water.  

But for all its immersive-ness, you can't help but wonder if Dune is lacking in real feeling–big emotions that drive the early Star Wars movies, which borrows heavily from the novel. Villeneuve deals with an equally mythical story about a boy on an interplanetary quest, but it's doubtful if any of the characters leave a lasting impression. Maybe they are not meant to, and it's probably not what Villeneuve is after anyway. In a way he has made an anti-Star Wars movie, a movie that challenges the idea of what a blockbuster in 2021 should look and feel like. It has certainly earned that sequel.

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