Rediscovering “Dune”: Villeneuve’s film ‘promising and riveting’

Opening with the enigmatic statement that “Dreams are Messages from the Deep,” director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” is the third major attempt to adapt one of the most influential and important science-fiction novels ever written for the screen.  A thematically and philosophically dense novel, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” explores imperial colonialism, the mistreatment of native populations, ecological exploitation leading to environmental disaster, and religious fanaticism, all issues of current concern to anyone paying attention to world events.  These themes are made accessible through the coming-of-age story of the central character, the 15-year-old Paul Atreides, whom the audience initially has no problem embracing as he struggles to understand himself and avenge the political disaster that destroys his family.  However, even this standard literary trope is not as straight-forward as it seems; as one character in the novel famously notes, “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a hero.”  Therefore, the novel is also an exercise in misdirection, subverting the easy sympathies that we automatically adopt as readers when we “root for the good guy.”

All of this makes adapting the book terribly tricky for a film-maker; how do you streamline the book’s content for the screen without sacrificing the depth and complexity of its themes and characters, while also making its “science-fictiony” elements accessible to those who have never read the novel?  The answer is to do so over the course of two films rather than just one.  And although adapting only the first half of the novel, leading to a cliffhanger-style ending that declares “This is only the beginning,” thankfully Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part 1” is a visually stunning and immersive experience that conveys both the other-worldly wonder of science-fiction and the compelling story of a boy trying to come to grips with what could be a terrible destiny.  The far-distant future of “Dune” is visually rendered with monumental and brutally angular architecture, vast and empty desert landscapes, and a seamless blend of CGI with practical effects and live-action.  The deep desert of the planet Arrakis, where most of the action takes place, is rendered in stark and convincing detail; filmed in Jordan and Abu Dhabi, a desert landscape has not been this lovingly and effectively rendered on the screen since David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”  Balancing story-telling with action, Villeneuve allows the setting and the characters to act as exposition, telling you what you need to know about the worlds in which the story takes place.  However, this is layered story-telling; the film does not hold the audience’s hand, and it expects you to pay attention.

The strength of Villeneuve’s casting is also immediately apparent; Timothy Chalomet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaacs, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgaard, Jason Momoa, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster own their scenes and invest their characters with gravitas and believability.  Their characters are conveyed through gestures and intonation, through facial expressions and vocal emotion.  Even the minor characters get their moments to shine, and the major characters experience arcs that compel the audience’s attention and invest us in their eventual development as the complete story unfolds.

While this is a story of good vs. evil, nobility vs. brutality, it is also a story of how best intentions can turn on those committed to them, and how revenge can poison even the most just of causes.  No story of our time is perhaps better situated to cause us to question our heroes and our often mindless allegiance to their causes, and no time is perhaps better for us to revisit this lesson: that all humans are fallible, and that all leaders are but human.

The saga of “Dune” is far from over…and part one of Denis Villeneuve’s first film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel is a promising and riveting beginning.  This is a film to experience in the visual and audio environment of the theater and to revisit at home more than once.  It may even convince some to rediscover one of the most important and thematically compelling novels of the 20th century: Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”