Villeneuve: Dune (2021) | featured image
Timothée Chalamet in Dune (2021) | IMDB

Venice 2021: Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ Stirs up the Grit

Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ (Venice International Film Festival 2021) looks the part and will not disappoint fans, but it groans under the weight of its world-building.

Denis Villeneuve
Warner Bros.
September 2021 | Venice International Film Festival

Alright, let’s get some preliminary punchlines out of the way for those dying to hear the gist without wanting to spoil anything for themselves. Yes, it is true that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune looks spectacular, sounds spectacular, and sets the right tone for what is almost certainly going to be a franchise (hint: the opening card reads Dune: Part One, and the film covers less than half of the first book in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi series).

Villeneuve’s film also follows its source material loyally, albeit with some small changes such as turning up the manifesting feminist warriors of Lady Jessica and Chani to Beyoncé levels. The actors are consistently great and Timothée Chalamet was indeed born to play the standoffish and haughty Messiah that is Paul Atreides. You know this story, hence you know all of the plot, and nothing in the film will shock the fans; the canon has been honored. 

Already having claimed the “worthy” Dune title, the film does address, or at least hint at, every one of the many sociopolitical and ecological intricacies of the 1965 novel. However, this is where it also stumbles under its own weight of ambition and scope.

One would be remiss not to note the all too sparse screenplay, which serves the aesthetic, rather than the other way around. Where there is plenty of opportunity for emotional connection or at least narrative explanation, blockbuster cliché blanks were fired instead; at times the most expansive sci-fi universe ever created evokes bizarre claustrophobia, its characters appearing almost parodical in their quiet self-seriousness. The world-building was given much thought – with a running time of 155 minutes and a blue-chip trio of screenwriters in Villeneuve, Eric Roth, and John Spaihts – but the story sometimes collapses in on itself, not unlike the vast sprays of sand disappearing into the unending mouth of the Sandworms. 

It is an immense blessing to have the person who directed Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) commit themselves to create what’s been more or less deemed the first adequate ecranisation of Dune. Trained as an aesthete across an array of films as diverse as Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), and Sicario (2015), the Canadian director used his latest two releases to hone the skills of creating fully fleshed-out, yet also airtight, almost closed-off worlds. His uniformly impressive backdrops, be it small-town Pennsylvania, barren soils of the Mexican borders, or a revamping of the Blade Runner dystopia, only come alive through his protagonists, all of whom are drowning in them.

It is no coincidence that Villeneuve was an obvious choice for another attempt at bringing Dune to the silver screen: besides being one of the rare names who can attract virtually unlimited budgets, he flaunts an elegant and underappreciated proclivity toward representing his heroes’ lives and fates through their surroundings. His characters’ emotions and actions are, without exception, fundamentally interwoven with and even dependent upon their physical settings, making Dune an ideal match for this Montrealer.

From Paul’s almost morbid fascination with the “new” desert world to his father Leto’s repulsed rejection of it (he calls it a “hellhole” and implies the planet of Arrakis is like a tomb to him), many of the elements of Dune are primarily examined through individual or collective relationships with spaces and habitats. The Brobdingnagian Baron Vladimir Harkonnen needs his chamber arches to be high so he that he can fly through them; the Fremen are the only people capable of surviving on Arrakis because of their adeptness to living in the rocky sietches, and so on. 

This is where things get interesting in the film, since this deep relationship to physical spaces is what defines the primary qualities and motivations of its manifold characters. Because the film follows the story of the book faithfully, you’ve had a 55-year headstart over the spoilers, of which there will be few in this article. On the one hand, we have centuries of political fencing between the so-called Great Houses over stewardships of planets and their produce, their feudal colonialism overshadowed only by their humongous egos while claiming to serve the peoples they exploit. On the other hand, a raging (quasi) religious power struggle – also inextricably tied to soil – pushes entire groups to act with premeditated, calculated malice. 

More personally, the lingering sentiments and actions of protagonists are also linked to their location. Paul dreams of growing into his role of Kwisatz Haderach (“Shortening of the Way”) by learning the ways of the desert; the fates of his mentors, Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, are also forever changed by the consequences of taking on a new planet.

Duke Leto’s, Lady Jessica’s, and Baron Harkonnen’s obsessions with their enclosures are more personal; Leto despises physical confinement, the baron relishes it, while Jessica, focused only on her mission to rise (Paul) to power, tends to adapt to any surroundings with aplomb in her effort to gain the upper hand. Lastly, Herbert’s novel is at its most groundbreaking when it explores the themes of ecology and climate, tightly linking hydraulic despotism and other notions of tyranny with most dynasties’ preferred ways of ruling. The film leans on the idea of control through natural resources heavily, implying that the conflicts seen on screen are not just a thing of our civilization’s past, but a cautionary tale of what’s to come. 

Luckily for the audience, both Herbert’s and Villeneuve’s fascination with physical spaces and their relationships to society provides the ideal entry point for the filmmaker to penetrate the fabric of the writer’s fascinating, but monstrous universe. Working with veteran cinematographer Greig Fraser, four-time collaborator, editor Joe Walker, and a virtually unlimited budget, Villeneuve’s vision of Dune’s locations is unmatched by anything seen on screen before. His worlds (and protagonists), sifted through heavy red and grey tints, are as frightening as they are impressive. The visions of endless sand, concrete, ships that move oceans and forts the size of entire cities, leave viewers breathless and almost choking on the size and weight of their enormity.

It would be distasteful to compare the magnitude of the ships, troops, and confines created by Villeneuve’s team with either Star Wars or Blade Runner (or “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”), or any other sci-fi precisely because Herbert’s Dune published before any of them and set the vision for all these other releases we so cherish. In 2021, Villeneuve has the resources and technology to create huge armies and sweeping aerial shots of cities and skylines on a scale that dwarfs everything you know and love, and you will be astonished by the grandeur presented in almost every frame of Dune.

But he doesn’t do it (just) to impress. On the contrary, the enormity of both Caladan and Arrakis castles, where the Atreides’ dwell, the collapsing walls of Baron’s Giedi Prime chambers, the merciless storms during which the Bene Gesserit descend on Caladan, and the quiet flutter of the infinite sands, all serve to demonstrate the perpetual (impending) doom and agony. There’s nothing remotely joyous about the fable that’s being told here (there are literally two comical lines in the entire film, not scenes, lines) and Villeneuve meanders the many moments of despair by taking the weight off the actors and placing it upon the scenography and the impressively loud score by Hans Zimmer.

The methods of intimidation through deafening noises and ever-shifting walls/sceneries (think Mark Danielewski’s 2000 book, House of Leaves) work well, sending the audience into an endless spiral of suspense and fear, despite knowing what will happen. This is where the film succeeds most, in creating goosebumps and dread at every turn, keeping the audience, of whom likely 50%+ have read the novels, squirming in their seats.

Indeed, Zimmer understands the assignment well, drawing from Persian, Irish, and Scottish music, among other ethnological explorations, to illustrate the multi-ethnic setup and conflict of the franchise. The frequently pseudo-intellectual religious and political blabber that admittedly permeates every pore of almost every scene continuously threatens to send the grandeur of this space opera into unintentional parody, but Villeneuve and co. keep it together… at least partially. There is little overdramatization and no pontificating. 

In pursuit of the goal of being bombastic without ending up the butt of the joke, the cast helps enormously. Fans of Dune will inevitably claim they know best what each character is supposed to look like, but Villeneuve hit the jackpot here with the entire gargantuan ensemble. These are some of the best actors of their generation, so it’s hardly shocking to say they – gasp – know how to act, but many deliver thrills beyond their modest screen time.

Timothée Chalamet, bearing a most appropriate middle name, Hal, was surely born to play Paul Atreides, the Chosen One of many names. His delicate physical features and his character’s snappy attitude imbue Paul with the most intense of personalities. Chalamet plays him with adequate dejection and frustration but brings an extra layer with his exasperated, yet snide demeanor. This Paul is noble, surely, but he knows it all too well. He isn’t kind and isn’t even particularly likable. That’s a bold move on Chalamet’s and Villeneuve’s end and a drastic departure from the Luke Skywalkers and John Snows the masses adore. The Chosen One is yet to grow up and learn how to carry himself, and his intelligence combined with immaturity is glorious to behold. 

Similarly great in her role is Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica. The conniving Bene Gesserit disciple is unabashedly and disconcertingly ambitious but also defined, and perhaps held back by her infinite love of her son. Ferguson, who gets by far the most screentime besides Chalamet, dances the fine line between sympathetic and off-putting, capably setting the scenes for her stories to come. Her unrelenting devotion to Paul and her vision of him as the Kwisatz Haderach is both admirable and scary.

The ever-capable Oscar Isaac is good as Duke Leto, though his character, unfortunately, doesn’t get to do much to further the story except roam around different chambers. This is where the problems begin, too, with most actors being disappointingly underutilized, appearing in no more than two or three scenes. Some, like Stellan Skarsgard’s Vladimir Harkonnen, have about six lines total (I counted, not sure if this is precise but it’s in this ballpark), while Josh Brolin’s Gurney Halleck takes the stage in maybe two scenes, appearing in two more in the background.

Jason Momoa gets a decent chance to dazzle as the charismatic and rebellious Duncan Idaho – and this he does, and then some – but the rest of the actors get only a brief screenplay and minuscule screentime. Even Zendaya’s Chani doesn’t get more than three or four lines that aren’t delivered as a voiceover. Where the aesthetic succeeds in complementing and enhancing the themes, the script underwhelms the narrative in the same way as Blade Runner 2049.  

“The book is far more relevant today about the danger of the cross mix between religion and politics. The danger of messianic figures. The impact of colonialism. The problems with the environment. This book stayed with me through the years but it just felt more and more relevant through time,” said Villeneuve at the Dune press conference on 3 September at the Venice International Film Festival. Still, all these themes are hinted at but rarely explained through more than symbolic scenography (think fascist-friendly military formations, chanting crowds of impoverished people in keffiyeh). The meager amount of words in the screenplay often leave characters hanging about in overly long shots and unnecessary dramatic silences. 

Almost half of all narration in this film is used to sermonize the overabundance of new concepts and terminology. To be clear, this is necessary with any film introducing the viewers to a larger series, and no franchise, good or bad, is devoid of these scattered manuals. However, the issue is that the rest of the screenplay is underutilized, not serving solid dialogue or bringing emotional depth, but rather fading into the background and letting the world-building do all the “talking”.

Indeed, countless opportunities for provoking the viewers to feel more than just sheer amazement are missed for reasons unknown. By the end of Part One, we know a bit about Paul, Jessica, and Duncan, but practically nothing about anyone else, including the major characters. Their personalities and motivations, as well as the novel’s most complex themes, are often overlooked for the sake of the bleak spectacle. By remaining hyper-focused on the aesthetic, Villeneuve seems to forget that viewers need to not only witness something in a film, but to feel it, too. 

For nitpickers, there are the missed opportunities to elevate the story further. Upon its release in 1965, Dune was groundbreaking and impressive on a number of levels, but it, too, faced or faces the same pitfalls as many other epics. There’s the birthright to power, the narrative of a (male) nobleman Chosen One the entire universe bows to, the comical and utterly hideous antagonist and the admirable and wholly honorable hero(es), and more. Villeneuve’s film had the opportunity to adapt some of this obsolete imagery into more mature and nuanced storytelling, but except for empowering Chani and Jessica further as key players, it settles for the all-too-familiar territory of black-and-white rivalries.

The antagonists, especially David Dastmalchian’s Piter De Vries (with Harkonnen this was inevitable, so he doesn’t count), is physically and morally repulsive and his intentions, despicable. By the same token, the heroes are uniformly laudable, beautiful, and heroic in every gesture. It is understandable that Villeneuve could not have changed the appearances or the story too much, but a more multi-layered approach would have made for a better film. 

Ultimately, Dune looks the part and will not disappoint fans. It is a meticulously crafted epic that hits many of the right notes and sets the stage for what’s to come. The (few) action sequences are fantastic and the performances add to the suspense. Nevertheless, it does groan under the weight of its world-building at the expense of the story and leaves viewers wanting more than just the eerie atmosphere and the story’s dreamlike hints of the future.