Since the publication of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune in 1965 and its sequels, the Dune franchise has become widely known to be “unfilmable”. In a rather lengthy book of around 500 pages, the complex fictional world created by Herbert contains a multitude of themes, perspectives and backstories, where the characters’ critical reflections and struggles are oftentimes merely narrated in inner monologue instead of being voiced aloud. Herbert is considered by many to be one of the greatest fictional world builders, with Dune representing in science fiction what Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings might be in the fantasy genre. While there have been previous attempts to adapt Herbert’s Dune to the screen (with varying degrees of success), the following will focus on the 2021 Dune movie realised by director Denis Villeneuve, who is best known for his works Arrival and Blade Runner 2049.
Dune is set in the distant future, around 20’000 years from now, inside an empire of planets colonised by humans. The noble family of House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), is leaving their home planet Caladan for the planet Arrakis – also known as Dune – by order of the Emperor. The mission of House Atreides is to control and manage the harvest of a powerful and valuable substance called “spice” or “melange”. Yet the control over Arrakis has been taken away from the House Harkonnen, who had been in charge of the planet for 80 years. The Harkonnens want to take back control over Arrakis and the “spice” harvest. Dune tells of the new challenges faced by young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and the people surrounding him, including his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa). On a desert planet that is not meant for humans to survive, only an alliance with the nomadic Fremen might enable them to resist the treacherous Harkonnen.
Before diving into the details of the movie, it is important to note that Villeneuve's 2021 Dune adaptation is only covering half of the first Dune novel. This means that, if you decide to give Dune a go and end up loving the movie and/or the book, there is a second part coming for you in 2023! Now, what has been the most striking for me about Villeneuve’s Dune was the beautiful cinematography and sound. I noticed pretty soon that Villeneuve cares about creating a profound atmosphere wherein you can fully immerse yourself. I got the feeling that for every shot, the right angle and frame have been carefully considered before filming. Especially the shots of the desert and the sandworms – giant worms living in the desert of Arrakis – are captivating. Some frames are simply grand and awe-inspiring, others demonstrate an astonishing subtlety, making them real pieces of art.
Additionally, the cinematography is supported by a rather minimalistic, but harmonious colour palette. The deep blue of planet Caladan represents a contrast to the rich orange of Arrakis, creating different moods for both planets. The visual atmosphere is supported by Hans Zimmer’s powerful score. It is not the first time that I’ve marvelled at the composer’s skills, as he has been the mind behind many beautiful and famous soundtracks. Dune’s soundtrack is sinister, emotional and ominous. Tense moments are accentuated by acute chanting and sudden instrumental sounds.
Now, about the plot. As mentioned before, the movie is only an adaptation of the first half of Herbert’s book. Hence, this first part is acting primarily as the exposition of the characters. Some viewers, especially those unfamiliar to the Dune franchise, have left the cinemas disappointed about an incomplete storyline and maybe a rather underdeveloped plot. From my own experience, I can say that this was not the case for me. When I saw the movie for the first time, I had not yet read the novel and I knew little to nothing about Dune. Still, I enjoyed the slow pace of the movie which allowed me to take in the complexity of the world and to focus on the different characters. Rather than rushing immediately to the main action, Villeneuve’s Dune allows enough time to consider each moment.
However, having read the novel in the meantime, I can now say that there are certain plot lines that have been brushed over in the movie adaptation. In the book, they provide more background information and a deeper understanding for the forthcoming treason between House Harkonnen and House Atreides. It would have been nice if more of these aspects had been included in the movie adaptation, especially because it would have allowed for a stronger screen presence of the villains. The motives behind the Harkonnens’ revenge could also have been portrayed in more depth. Nevertheless, the introduction of the characters has generally been well done in my opinion. The cast of Dune is impressive, including many famous stars such as Timothée Chalamet, maybe best known for his performance in “Call Me by Your Name” and Zendaya, who starred in the latest Spider-Man movie (although her performance as Chani in Dune was quite limited time-wise).
Furthermore, one of the major difficulties for the Dune movie was adapting Herbert’s use of inner monologue and the description of visions to the screen. Villeneuve decided to repeatedly show snippets of Paul’s visions of Arrakis and the Fremen to demonstrate his mental gifts as a prophet. While this gave me a vague sense of Paul’s mental abilities when I first watched the movie, it was only when I read the book that I understood the full scope of his gift. In addition, the movie did not leave a lot of room for Paul’s thoughts to become clear to the viewer. Maybe the second part of the movie duology will provide more insight into Paul's reasoning and mental capacities. I’m also waiting to see how the themes of spirituality, politics and environmentalism will be further developed in Part Two.
Finally, I must admit that Dune might be more enjoyable for people who like to immerse themselves in complex world-building and who do not shy away from an intricate and at times confusing plot line. Villeneuve’s adaptation presents enough explanations to more or less understand the story, but I can see how some might still have difficulties to follow. A few more explanations would have been nice to provide a better understanding of the complex socio-cultural and political context in which Dune’s plot is set.
In conclusion, I recommend that you give Dune a go. From all the science fiction movies I have seen so far, Dune is standing out the most in terms of cinematography and world-building. It is not about the constant fast-paced spaceship battles that you usually see in Sci-Fi movies. One can clearly recognize the efforts made to create a whole atmosphere that is slowly growing more intense and ominous. While there are of course some deviances from Herbert’s novel, the movie adaptation of Dune does the original material justice for the most part. If you are interested, I would also recommend reading Herbert's novel, as it gives even more depth to both the characters and the plot. Maybe you will discover a new franchise to immerse yourself in, who knows!