Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a science fiction film dominated by ideas. His Blade Runner 2049 is a science fiction film dominated by imagery. Dune strikes me as the filmmaker’s attempt to mesh those two divergent approaches together into a singular work, suggested that every piece of fantastical fiction on his filmography was intentionally designed to be the long onramp to this particular cinematic task.
Adapting Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel has knocked other renowned directors to the canvas, but Villeneuve, it seems, comes to the material as a more fervent devotee than any of his predecessors. In shaping the film version of this story of catastrophic intergalactic jockeying to control the resource-rich planet Arrakis (in addition to directing, Villeneuve is co-credited on the screenplay), he is astute about what needs to be included from the dense, complicated source material. It helps, no doubt, that modern audiences have been primed to let vast narrative world-building wash over them by years of superheroes, hobbits, boy wizards, and Jedi (the latter of which made their debut in a film that was basically Dune for Kids). Tickets are bought with the implicit understanding that there were be necessary instruction interwoven with the entertainment, the promise that at least attempting to grasp the contours of the pretend society will heighten the enjoyment of all the boom boom boom. Villeneuve doesn’t shy away from the baffling hierarchies, prophecies, and accumulated lore, and its to his great credit that he delivers it with clarity and minimal reliance of thudding exposition. He relays the details like someone who’s internalized them rather than someone who sees the sharing of them as a burdensome task.
I think it’s Villeneuve’s commitment that makes his take on Dune so authentic and therefore properly at home on the screen in a way that other adaptations couldn’t muster. He routinely dazzles with the lush beauty of his shots (Greig Fraser is the cinematographer) and works with a string of expert collaborators to make practically every component of the film’s technical construction — sound design, costumes, art direction, visual effects, and on and on — into a towering achievement. Yet the film’s world also gives the impression that individuals exist in it, which wasn’t true of the Blade Runner sequel. None of the acting performances are exactly deeply felt, but that somehow comes across as appropriate within the vast scope of the film. It’s a classic Hollywood war epic that just happens to take place on a desert planet with hallucinogenic pollen that fuels spaceships. The characters are buffeted by their experiences rather than standing out against them. In the film’s stacked cast, Rebecca Ferguson comes closest to realizing a full person among the churn, and both Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem make strong impressions with different timbres of unruffled onscreen charisma. In the pivotal leading role of Paul Atreides, Timothée Chalamet nails the petulant, impulsive young oddball who’s simultaneously intrigued and chagrined by his emerging status as a messiah-like leader. If he does better with the showy moments than the small moments, that works well enough for the demands of the film. It might not be a great performance, but it’s the performance Dune needs.
Like many other science fiction and fantasy stories, Dune is probably best on the page, and there are some facets of it that Villeneuve, try as he might, can’t quite wrangle onto the screen in effective fashion. Paul’s visions of his future, a reasonable contrivance in the novel, become tedious in the film, and the classic chosen-one hero tropes that Herbert exploited (and, to a degree, helped establish as trope in this corner of genre storytelling) don’t sit quite as well a few decades later. Themes of colonialism and commodity exploitation seem a convenience more than properly considered. Admittedly angling for a sequel, Villeneuve barely attempts to give the film an ending that’s remotely cohesive, which makes the whole piece feel unfinished and slightly misshapen. Given how much of his ambition he realizes, Villeneuve still stands tall, but the sand beneath his feet shifts enough to make his footing a little uncertain. Hopefully he finds his full steadiness before it’s time to climb that next Dune.