Venice 2021 review: Dune (Denis Villeneuve)

“as an introduction to the desert world of Arrakis, Dune leaves little to be desired for book nerds and the uninitiated alike”

Blind loyalty, blind faith. These are dangerous things. They bring death and destruction, now and in the future. It’s one of the core themes of Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune series, in particular its first two books, Dune and Dune Messiah. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One feels like the opening act of a three-act structure (and Villeneuve in a recent interview said he wants his Dune to be a trilogy), which means thematics like the dangers of blindly following leaders are not brought too much to the forefront yet, but he does plant the seeds for it, and in unexpected places. For the moment his film follows the traditional hero’s journey of a young ingenue without much deviation from Herbert’s novel, racing through all key scenes of the text that put Paul Atreides on the path to leadership. But is it a path he should take, or should he deny destiny, even when he can foresee where that leads? This question remains at the end of Dune, but as an introduction to the desert world of Arrakis it leaves little to be desired for book nerds and the uninitiated alike. Villeneuve doesn’t waste time explaining the intricacies of the universe he puts forth, nor of the many factions and their intertwining roles, which might leave those who have not read the novel scrambling to keep up, but there is plenty to enjoy even if you can’t take it all in on first viewing.

Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is the heir to Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), the head of a powerful house that has just been given control by Imperial decree over Arrakis, a desert planet that is the source of the universe’s most precious substance: the spice ‘melange’ (even if the film simply sticks to ‘spice’), a substance that is as important for physical and mental health as it is for fueling interplanetary space travel. The Atreides are to take over from their longstanding enemies the cruel House Harkonnen, who have had Arrakis under fiefdom for decades. The spice trade has made the leader of House Harkonnen, the sinister Baron (an intimidating Stellan Skarsgård), the richest man in the universe.

Paul’s mother Jessica (an impressive Rebecca Ferguson) has been training her son in the ways of the secretive female order she is part of, the Bene Gesserit. She believes her son to be a prophesied male member in the bloodline of the order, a man who would supposedly have the power to bridge space and time. The head of her order, the Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling), isn’t so sure after submitting Paul to a grueling test, but shows interest in the prophetic dreams Paul has been having lately: dreams in which he often sees a girl of the Fremen (Zendaya), one of the native inhabitants of Arrakis who have been cruelly oppressed by the Harkonnen. When the Atreides arrive on Arrakis, these Fremen also see a messiah figure in Paul, their Lisan al-Gaib or Mahdi, the one who will lead them to paradise. Once Paul comes into contact with the spice his visions intensify, but also get darker, as he sees the Fremen fanatically conquering the universe under his banners. Perhaps the messianic legends are actually true.

Glory seems a long way off though when the Harkonnen, not keen to give the source of their wealth away, return to Arrakis in full force, accompanied by the Emperor’s storied warriors, the Sardaukar. The Atreides’ reign on Arrakis looks likely to come to an end almost as soon as it had begun, and when Paul and his mother manage to escape the evil fate the Harkonnen had in store for them, there is only one place they may find refuge: the vast and dangerous desert, home to the Fremen and to Arrakis’ most fearsome creatures, giant sandworms.

Even with a runtime of 155 minutes, the large cast of characters it has to introduce and the amount of ground it has to cover forces Villeneuve to keep Dune going at an ever-increasing pace; certainly after the Harkonnen re-take control, Paul and Jessica’s flight from constant danger barely leaves the viewer room to breathe as they move from set piece to set piece. The film seems to introduce characters, scientific or cultural terms, and new betrayals behind every sand dune they traverse, making it hard to keep up for those not familiar with the story. Readers of the novel will be delighted to see how close Dune sticks to the plotting of the book. While few scenes are direct lifts from the original text, all the major moments are there in a form true to Herbert’s novel. It may overwhelm newcomers though, getting lost in all the names and terminology. They are supposed to just hold on for the thrill-ride that Dune undeniably is, because Villeneuve insures there is enough jaw-dropping action to lose yourself in.

With Dune, Villeneuve has orchestrated the first act of an epic space opera with the grandeur of a prestige drama. Set to Hans Zimmer’s bombastic yet surprising score, everything in Dune is larger in scope than any sci-fi universe seen outside the Star Wars saga, with the depth and intelligence of Lord of the Rings, another story steeped in intricate and vast world building. If this is indeed the beginning of Paul’s inevitable and prophesied path, once we reach the end of the saga we may have witnessed the definitive deconstruction of the hero’s journey, and Dune: Part One is an exciting start to that. Almost by necessity the film is heavy on plot and exposition, even if delivered organically, and decisively lower on thematic layering. If later installments will indeed see fanatic fervor take over Paul’s followers, there is plenty of time to deepen Herbert’s concepts, but it is interesting how Villeneuve already provides echoes of this in how he portrays House Atreides. Although Duke Leto is a righteous man, the way his soldiers in an early scene chant the Atreides name and how Villeneuve shoots this makes it come off almost fascist. The dangers of worshipping your leaders are sown early, even if we can expect these thoughts to become more pronounced later.

The technical aspects of Dune are all of exceptional quality, and the acting follows suit. Due to the size of the cast, the supporting line-up is not always given a lot to work with, and Stephen McKinley Henderson as the mentat (essentially a human computer) Thufir Hawat gets the short end of the stick. Josh Brolin as the commander of House Atreides’ elite troops has a fairly one-note role, lacking the melancholy of the source material, while Jason Momoa as weapons master Duncan Idaho will surely become a fan favorite with the charm Momoa gives his character. Skarsgård’s Baron is as menacing as Isaac’s Leto is humane, the latter a true unsung hero in another good performance by Isaac (he was the only really good thing about Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, also playing in Venice). But the film belongs to Chalamet and Ferguson: the former as the reluctant, puzzled hero who gradually comes to terms with what he is to become, and she as the exceptionally powerful woman with the worrying heart of a mother.

After David Lynch’s disastrous 1984 treatment of Herbert’s novel and the better-but-still-lacking adaptation of the John Harrison mini-series, fans of Dune may have finally found the definitive cinematic version of their beloved story. Even if it leaves out certain elements (it is an adaptation after all, and there’s only so much you can put into a two-and-a-half-hour film), the core of Herbert’s story is there, and it will be exciting to see how an artist like Villeneuve can deepen the ideas in further episodes of this saga. For those new to the Dune universe there is a lot to take in, maybe too much at times, but Villeneuve provides enough to enjoy on a base level that Dune might become the astounding success it deserves to be.