Frank Herbert’s Dune has a long history of cinematic adaptations. Most of them have mixed, if not unfavourable reputation. Many who have watched the 1984’s Dune are still haunted by the image of scantily clad Sting in the role of Baron Harkonnen’s nephew. It is no wonder that the new adaptation, despite very promising trailers, was anticipated with careful optimism.
I do not recall when have I last watched an epic sci-fi blockbuster without my experience being disturbed by bad script, occassional too-cheesy one-liners or some other disruptive details. The new Dune has none of that. Dennis Villeneuve took his role as director seriously and the outcome may be one of the best sci-fi films in recent history.
The new Dune is certainly a film meant to be watched on the big screen. Its production was delayed by the pandemic, but the wait was definitely worth it. Beautiful sceneries, costumes and camera shots. The design of spaceships and other sci-fi elements is “classic” enough to feel familiar, but different enough from the likes of Star Wars that it looks unique. The orientalistic vibe of Arrakis from the novel is preserved, but only to the degree that it does not seem like a joke.
Treading The Narrow Path
The Ancient Greek ideal of “moderation” comes to one’s mind when thinking about this film. That pertains both to the visuals and also to the handling of the plot and the setting. Dennis Villeneuve has taken seriously the challenge that Herbert’s Dune is set in an immensely rich universe that deserves its exposition, yet at the same time that an average cinema-goer should not feel buried under the heaps of information. The film has managed to find its balance in this aspect as well as in many others.
Another one that deserves to be mentioned is the handling of narrative elements that may be a little schematic for today’s taste. For instance, despite fairly realistic and multi-faceted worldbuilding, the original novel portrays the Harkonnens as pure evil. The film has managed to preserve this while somehow keeping them realistic and/or not making them a joke (yes, I am still looking at you, Sting). At the same time, it has avoided lazily hopping on the popular trend of “explaining” villains by giving them a (sometimes good, sometimes rather convoluted) backstory. Stellan Skarsgård as the Baron is a foul, wicked creature and he is perfect that way.
Star Actors, Lifelike Characters
The filmmakers have managed to secure top actors, almost to the point that you are thinking whether it is not too much for one film. If nothing else it leaves no room for worrying about shabby acting or badly delivered lines. Everyone nails their role, from Timothée Chalamet as Paul through Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, down to the more minor roles like Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho or Chen Chang’s Doctor Yueh. Even Chani, who does not get that much space (yet) gets a convincingly mysterious, yet at the same time realistic flesh-and-blood portrayal by Zendaya. When you see her in Paul’s visions, she is the mystical alien, but you also get to see her as a young adult who acts in a slightly know-it-all manner towards a stranger, but is no less a fallible human than him.
The writing is as good as the delivery and I must say that the film offers an amazing insight into the minds of its protagonists. You know what are their conflicts, their aims, without it being spelled out in front of you in some blunt, unsubtle way. You recognise Lady Jessica’s ambition for her child clashing with her loyalty to Bene Gesserit, you can read Duke Leto’s (Oscar Isaac) dilemma about going to Arrakis; even a warrior-type like Duncan Idaho comes across as a living, breathing character.
This is all helped by the unrushed pace of the film that lets you take your time, look at the scenery, listen to the characters but also observe them without rushing from scene to scene. That is not to say that there is no action! Action scenes are plenty, from Paul’s training with great choreography and effects (personal shields!), through large-scale battles and sand worm encounters.
Dune‘s music is superb, and no wonder. The composer is the many-times-awarded Hans Zimmer, who confessed to be a big Dune fan himself. Scoring Dune was such a dream come true for him that he turned down another proposal to do it. The music oscillates between eerie ambient (Zimmer said to have designed his own instruments in order to produce truly sci-fi sounds) and subtly oriental themes, with occasionally something completely different to liven up the scene. Everyone will probably notice the throat-singing in the scene where Imperial Sardaukar are introduced.
Any decent composer could produce a catchy theme, but one way to tell a good soundtrack is that it complements the scenery even when you are not actively noticing it. And Hans Zimmer’s score in Dune manages to do just that. Large part of the time the music is a part of the landscape as much as the sand dunes are.
Faithful To The Original?
As always with adaptations, book purists may be interested in the question: how much does the film stray away from Frank Herbert’s original book?
Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune is very faithful to the original. It not only stays much closer to the plot than all the previous adaptations (all notoriously different) but, I daresay, even compared to the average cinematic adaptations of fantasy and sci-fi novels. To say that dit does not veer off for all practical purposes is a justified answer.
If there is any generic difference, it is in the amount of exposition certain characters get. For instance Duke Leto Atreides gets a little more close and personal portrayal, and the film gives him nearly as much space as it gives to young Paul, while for example Thufir Hawat (Stephen Henderson) gets considerably less space than in the book. One visible change is gender-swapping Doctor Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). But again, that changes nothing pertaining to the plot or the characterisation, and the character is just superb.
The Peter Jackson Effect
Is there then anything to criticise about the film? If one had to name something, it could be the length. The film is two-and-half hours long and its last third turns to be somewhat slow. There is perhaps a bit of the “Peter Jackson effect” (as in Return of the King): you keep thinking that perhaps now there would be a good moment for a cut and end credits. The length is, however, owed largely to the amount of source material and the way the filmmakers decided to distribute it (already the opening title warns us that this is “Part 1”). And I am saying this all with the reservation that I have mentioned earlier: it is definitely preferrable to have longer Dune with scenes that allow you to stop and take it in to a shorter, densely packed action-Dune.
Overall, the 2021 Dune is a fresh splash in the desert of contemporary sci-fi epics. Fresh despite the fact that it is the adaptation of over half a century old novel, and despite the fact that it stays faithful to this dusty volume. Somehow, it manages to walk the narrow line between the demands of modern cinema and classical sci-fi. And it does so without using cheap tricks to cater to the audience while also not holding on to some stiff-necked, old-timer “purist” ideas.
Honestly, the only thing the new Dune is missing is an eccentric-looking pop star as Feyd-Rautha. But perhaps we can live without that.