Denis Villeneuve Dune review

Denis Villeneuve defies all mainstream conventions with his adaptation of Dune

“Dune feels like a stoner movie made by someone who has never smoked weed in his life — a precise and complex symphony that has little space for improvisation and genuine emotion.”

There has never been a cultural phenomenon quite like Dune in my lifetime. Ask nearly anyone about Dune, and they at least know of it — perhaps they’ve never read Frank Herbert’s original novel, but they may have seen the much-maligned David Lynch film adapted from it. Dune exists in the public space as one of the few nearly-universally canonical works of science fiction, and people who’ve read it either love it or find it to be a titanic work of colossal nonsense. 

I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t read it.

Even without having read the book, it’s difficult for me to avoid having opinions and expectations for this new iteration of Dune. Both Lynch’s version and (especially) the proposed Jodorowsky version that’s outlined in the great doc Jodorowsky’s Dune are mired in a psychedelic, prog-rock sort of imagery that’s not particularly popular these days. It certainly doesn’t feel like the kind of thing one associates with Denis Villeneuve, cinema’s most dexterous purveyor of stark, dusty existentialism. There’s a sort of unshakable contradiction at the core of Villeneuve’s Dune. It’s never been this easy to put a novel this complex into images, and it’s never been this uncool to make a giant sci-fi movie that doesn’t devolve into CGI action every 10 or 15 minutes. I’m not enough of a Dune scholar to tell you if Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Dune is accurate or not, but I will say this: In a world dominated by bombastic blockbusters packed with spoon-fed exposition and endless carnage, the dense mythology and explicitly uncommercial appeal of Dune is a breath of fresh air.

Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is assigned stewardship of Arrakis, a desert planet highly coveted for its high levels of “spice.” Spice (also known as melange) is a substance used both in space travel and as a highly addictive hallucinatory drug, which means nearly everyone wants a piece of it — something complicated by the presence of enormous sandworms on Arrakis. Atreides seems reluctant to take on the new position, but he nevertheless travels with his concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) to this new planet. Leto’s suspicions are confirmed when a trap is sprung by House Harkonnen, the previous occupants of Arrakis run by the nefarious Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), who has not taken too kindly to being replaced.

That’s just the broad strokes of the first… 30 minutes of the brain-straining epic that is Dune. There’s also a wandering desert tribe led by Javier Bardem, a dashing explorer played by Jason Momoa, teeth filled with poison, hallucinations, sandworms and a bevy of political machinations that are presented with utmost confidence by Villeneuve. If the narrative complexity of Dune paired with its technical challenges have always proved to be a sort of Achilles’ Heel in terms of adaptation, Villeneuve lets none of this transpire. Dune is not particularly adapted to the whims of the average moviegoer — it’s one of these “you’re in or you’re out” propositions, alternately talky and awe-inspiring.

Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve

It’s not difficult to see why Villeneuve has wanted to adapt this book for years. Dune functions almost as a compendium of all the things Villeneuve has explored in his previous films both visually and thematically, from the sandswept vistas to the heady sci-fi concepts of identity and memory explored in both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. It is, in the grand tradition of Denis Villeneuve movies, extremely humourless — perhaps the only $165-million sci-fi tentpole in recent history not to contain at least one throwaway one-liner. Suffice to say that those who do not necessarily respond to Villeneuve’s particular brand of filmmaking are unlikely to have a truly mind-expanding experience here.

It’s also worth noting that, while this Dune does not exactly have the tripped-out aesthetics of a Hawkwind album cover, Villeneuve pulls out all the stops in order to give the film a sense of outsized scope, often framing characters against endless backgrounds and placing them as quite literal specks of dust in the desert. That sense of scope is augmented by a bombastic score by Hans Zimmer (who is rarely anything but bombastic, truth be told) that buzzes and shimmers like orchestral shoegaze soundscapes. Opinions are split on Villeneuve’s insistence that the film must be seen in theatres while we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, but it’s hard to deny that the aesthetic qualities of Dune are particularly suited to an immersive experience.

In my previous discussion of Christopher Nolan’s films, I put forth a (fairly anemic, if we’re being honest) theory of Nolan as the prog-rock of directors. Villeneuve’s work shares some of those same components: an extremely self-serious approach to the material and a “boys with their toys” technical mastery and precision that can feel hermetic at times. Jodorowsky wanted his Dune to vibrate along the same lines as Pink Floyd’s music, which is already more free-flowing and less exacting than the majority of progressive rock. Dune, in turn, feels like a stoner movie made by someone who has never smoked weed in his life — a precise and complex symphony that has little space for improvisation and genuine emotion. I’ll be perfectly honest: Dune did not connect with me on any meaningful emotional level. There’s a certain level of the Dune experience that’s simply watching a virtuoso hit all the perfect notes with dexterity and verve — which isn’t everything, but certainly isn’t nothing, either. ■

Dune opens in Montreal theatres on Oct. 22, 2021. For more, please visit the film’s website. Watch the trailer here:

Dune, starring Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson & more

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