When director Denis Villeneuve was announced for the latest Dune adaptation, many fans had cautiously optimistic expectations. After completing the almost impossible task of creating a plausible, entertaining, and spiritual successor to one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, Blade Runner, with Blade Runner 2049, it was understandable why many considered him the best choice for the project.
Like Blade Runner, Dune is highly regarded as one of the best science fiction stories of all time, once again placing Villeneuve in the crosshairs of obsessive fans and critics without the requisite background to assess a complex adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel. Luckily for fellow fans of the source material, Villeneuve shares in the passion for the book that shaped his teenage years, and he delivers a faithful, visually stunning adaptation of Dune.
Villeneuve sticks very closely to Herbert’s novel, making careful selections to represent the nature of the many characters that inhabit the world of Dune and the most important elements of the story are all represented here (and many are ported over word-for-word). While it would be impossible to compress everything from Herbert’s novel into two films (let alone one entry), it is clear that the director knows the story very well and also knows how to convert them to a new medium.
The world of Dune is just as complex (perhaps more so) as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and contains multiple glossaries and excerpts about the spice business, the Imperium, the history of Arrakis, Bene-Gesserit dogma and prophecy, and more. In 1984, the producers of Dune even printed up “cheat sheets” to hand out to ticket buyers as they entered the theater to see David Lynch’s version (which only gave them a small taste of what they were getting into…).
Villeneuve avoids this problem by letting the characters explain only the essentials of the story, never allowing them to engage in long, drawn out “history lessons” (although the audience does get to eavesdrop on Paul Atreides learning some from his recorder/projector), so as not to disrupt the tight pacing of his film. The choice not to overexplain will certainly please Dune fans, but may send those less familiar with the novel seeking answers from Google, or in the best scenario, the original novel.
Those that did not show up to the theater to worship at the feet of the Kwisatz Haderach, but instead bought a ticket to see a star-studded science fiction film will also not be disappointed. The cast is as good as imagined, with each actor bringing their “A game”, due in no small part to Villeneuve. It is almost unfair to single out individual performers in this ensemble piece, but Rebecca Ferguson’s portrayal of Lady Jessica is her best performance on screen, capturing the power of the Bene-Gesserit sisterhood, the responsibilities of Duke Leto’s concubine, and the dual role of mother and mentor to the messianic Paul (played admirably by Timothee Chalamet). The character is perhaps the most complex in the text next to Paul, and Ferguson shows all sides of Lady Jessica on screen through her performance.
Those looking for unique visuals will also find them in Dune, particularly in the design of the costumes, ships, and Arrakis itself. The variety of dress for all occasions (the royal court, combat, desert life) borrow from all of the many cultures on our world and are a sight to behold. The space ships are also unlike any that viewers have seen before, as they are primarily asymmetrical spacecraft, with Villeneuve eschewing the standard ones based on jet fighters or over a hundred year’s worth of films to draw from. The only craft that appears sleek in the film are the famous ‘thopters from the novel, which are decidedly low tech and borrow more from a dragonfly than an X-Wing fighter.
To call Dune ambitious would be an understatement, as it is designed to launch a brand new film series, while still pleasing the fans of a beloved Sci-Fi classic. Those that grew up on Dune will not be disappointed, and hopefully the film will perform well enough in theaters and around the world to allow Villeneuve to complete the vision that guided him in his formative years, and guide the one that will always be the definitive film version of Herbert’s complex tale.