Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ is almost perfect

Why is “Dune” so hard to get right?


Chelsey Powell / Daily Collegian

By Molly Hamilton, Assistant Arts Editor

Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi epic, “Dune,” has long been regarded as completely unfilmable. It is long, dense and takes place in an impossibly detailed world. David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation was received horribly by critics and fans alike, although it did have its merits. The newly released version, directed by Denis Villeneuve, has received largely positive reviews and it’s easy to see why.

Visually, Villeneuve’s “Dune” is stunning—the sweeping desert landscape glitters with spice– the hallucinatory substance that insights universal conflict – and almost every shot reveals a new aspect of the planet Arrakis. Additionally, the casting is near perfection. Timothee Chalamet is charming and instantly believable as the naive aristocrat, Paul Atreides. His mother, Lady Jessica played by Rebecca Ferguson captures the nuances of grief and fear for her son’s future. In just a few minutes of screen time, it becomes evident that Zendaya has both the grit and subtlety to portray Chani, a mysterious, desert-wandering Fremen.

The aesthetic of “Dune” is impeccable. Where Lynch’s vision was slightly campy and overwrought, Villeneuve creates a dark, foreboding atmosphere that feels true to Herbert’s design. The Bene Gesserit, a pseudo-magical group of women who wield unspecified influence over the universe’s most important families, are haunting in their all-black, nun-esque attire. Throughout the film, a recurring image of a bull harkens back to mythological heroes and the arcane attitudes of “Dune’s” ruling class. The costuming, particularly of Jessica, is understated while still referring back to the over-the-top look of 1960s sci-fi. However, the Harkonnens, the aristocratic house that opposes the Atreides, could’ve benefitted from a bolder, more intimidating aesthetic.

The actual content conveyed through clipped dialogue and a cinematic drawn-out action sequence, follows the novel almost to the letter. There are multiple instances of dialogue pulled straight from the book, yet they never feel clunky or out of place. Most notably, the well-known “fear is the mind-killer” quote from Herbert, becomes a sort of motif and is referred back to throughout the film. Within the abbreviated – at times terse- dialogue there are moments that hint at a larger system of conflicts, emotions and events that the audience doesn’t have access to. When Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), Paul’s father, tells Jessica, “I should’ve married you,” there is no further exploration of that aspect in their dynamic. Those small, seemingly insignificant references serve to remind the viewer that this is a sprawling, messy world and we’re only just glimpsing it.

Within “Dune,” dreams and visions are not only symbolic devices but often integral to the plot. Villeneuve presents Paul’s many dreams and visions as short, bright interludes full of lingering glances. While it does get the point across, and perhaps makes the convoluted story a little easier to follow, it’s missing real strangeness. Herbert describes Arrakis as a surreal, mystical place, yet Villeneuve’s interpretation fails to reflect that. Lynch’s adaptation revels in that strangeness with bizarre, often grotesque, dream sequences that are never adequately explained. Ideally, Arrakis should be entirely foreign and even frightening to viewers, yet in Villeneuve’s interpretation, it borders on comfortably familiar.

The real disappointment of Villeneuve’s “Dune” is that it’s incomplete. The film’s extensive marketing failed to mention that this is just the first half of Herbert’s novel. While splitting such a complex, rich story into two parts allows it to stay true to the text, it also disrupts the narrative arc. Given where it cuts off, those that are unfamiliar with “Dune” might find Paul’s stunted emotional journey unsatisfying. For those that are familiar, the movie ends right when things are about to get interesting.

Before “Dune’s” release it was unclear whether the studio would approve a second film. Given its relative success at the box office and favorable reception, it’s likely that a second part is in the works. It’s difficult, however, not to question the choice to split this story in half without the promise of a sequel. For fans of the novel, the real intrigue and excitement of this adaptation lie in what it has yet to do. It’s undeniable that Villeneuve has set the stage for a fantastic set of films. What lies in question is whether he’ll be able to satisfactorily complete it.

Molly Hamilton can be reached at [email protected]