Dune Movie Review: This beautiful epic sacrifices story for deeper pleasures
Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel is a meditative epic with unforgettable imagery
One of my favourite games in the PlayStation universe is an experiential indie-adventure label called The Journey. As the title indicates, the game is about a journey… of an unnamed, faceless protagonist, who glides over long stretches of sand in a desert, seeking companionship and a certain oneness with nature. Parts of Dune evoked similar, almost spiritual, feelings in me. Make no mistake, Dune is much more dynamic, much more about the story—or should I say, the beginning of a story—than the indie game, but there’s a similar enjoyable stillness to this film. An example is when a small tech-bug is deployed to assassinate the Atreides heir, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), and where in another film, you would get a thrilling scene with the musical score accentuating the urgency, here, in Dune, you get profound stillness and silence. As the bug floats about, searching for its target, Paul steps into projection rays causing small neon marks of impact on his face, while he takes in the mesmerising movement of this winged metallic bug. It’s one of several filmmaking moments that are breathtakingly original in this film.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, Zendaya
Over the decades, we have seen literature and cinema romanticise the sea and the jungle, but the desert… that is usually utilised to signify danger and struggle. In Dune too (based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel), the desert isn’t easy to navigate around. Temperatures, in fact, rise to hundreds of degrees with the natives taking refuge in special suits that maintain body temperature by recycling their sweat. It’s a strange, alien land in which people spit to communicate respect, because what’s more valuable in such a setting than water and moisture... Adding to the peril of this location is a strange, gigantic creature called a sandworm that slithers under the sand. Despite the desert being such a threat to survival, this film communicates a rare love and respect for the setting. Cinematographer Greig Fraser and director Denis Villeneuve make this dry landscape devoid of trees look bewitchingly beautiful. One of my favourite shots is when an object shuffles under the sand, and momentarily, for a couple of seconds, the sand shifts like a wave of water. For a fleeting moment, the desert turns into its opposite… the ocean. It’s a film that inspires such reflection.
Dune’s pleasures lie in such moments. Where a film like Avatar sacrifices focus on the landscape for plot development, Dune refuses the temptation. Where another film of its ilk that tows the Hero’s Journey, might cover half a dozen stages in half hour, Dune remains content with slow progress in story. There’s an admirable refusal to condense the experience, so it can feel ‘faster’. The story is the familiar idea of The One, who, at first, gets filled with self-doubt, but slowly starts to believe in self. The beats ring familiar. There’s a prophecy about The One (Paul Atreides). There’s a call to adventure. There’s a long journey into strange lands and introductions to its strange people. And yet, in well-done films, these familiar beats continue to deliver enjoyment. We are so thrilled by the hero’s journey not because we crave a similar leader figure to bring us deliverance, but because we see our challenges get reflected in the hero’s journey. In Paul Atreides’ struggles, we see our own. In his slow evolution into a greater man, we find the inspiration for our own growth—or if not, at least the vicarious pleasure of observing the transformation of someone more able. When Paul grinds his teeth in unbearable pain and yet does not flee from it as any animal would, we wish to be as strong too. As Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), repeats many times in this film, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” In another story about The One, Harry Potter, it is said that Harry fears nothing more than fear itself. These are running themes in such stories.
The depth of these ideas is represented in the vastness of Dune’s universe. The sheer scale of Arrakis is to be experienced on the largest screen. There are so many shots that suggest that humans are but a speck in the world. An army that stretches as far as the eyes can see, gets shown as though it were not of people but ants. The architecture, the structural detail, say, in the palace in which the Atreides stay, make for memorable imagery. Even the copters that swarm about like dragonflies are unforgettable. Each time the wings fluttered about, I stared entranced.
And it helps that a film executed on this scale and imagination finds an ally in Hans Zimmer’s music that is equally vast. It’s an unusual adjective to use to describe music but watch the film to know why. The music communicates a strange beauty, a sense of foreboding, a hint of something ancient and foreign… in fact, you could argue that it’s all nature, in a sense. If you didn’t know Zimmer had made music for this film, I doubt you could guess it, given how unusual this work is in his often orchestra-dominated discography. A striking idea often employed for background music, is that of a woman’s scream. It communicates so much; a scream is versatile, and it is through it that we, humans, though blessed as we are with the knowledge of words, often express emotions ranging from joy to sorrow, pain to pleasure, birth to death.
The film reserves a special place for women. It is indeed a group of women called the Bene Gesserit who seem to be controlling the affairs of the world from the shadows. A favourite scene is that of the Reverend Mother noticing Lady Jessica’s hope that her son is The One, and wryly commenting how it’s a waste that her training should be imparted to a man. Another character, Dr. Leit-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), displays a lot of mental resilience. Zendaya, meanwhile, seems to play a Neytiriesque character called Chani, but there’s not a whole lot of her in this film. Given that this seems to be the first film of a trilogy, I’m sure we can expect to see a lot more of her in forthcoming films.
The events of this film, seemingly incomplete as they are, would so often get interpreted by writers as perhaps being the first half of a feature film. And yet, I liked that Denis Villeneuve trains his unwavering focus on bringing to us a lot more than plot. Is there enough story in this film? Perhaps not, but the rarer visual and aural pleasures in it are more than adequate compensation. One such image—of a mother and son dragging their feet, dancing almost, on desert sands, even as a double moon rises in the horizon—will stay with me for a long time. This film, as Chani says at the end, is “just the beginning”. And for such visual imagination and an almost meditative focus on the individual moments of a film, I’m more than willing to wait another couple of years for a sequel. By that time, I’ll likely have seen this first film a dozen times I suspect.