After the mixed attempts of adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune into live-action, Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation is not only faithful to the source material but achieves it in spectacular fashion. Dune is a masterclass of modern filmmaking.
With a star-studded cast, the film was expected to display many of the best performances of the year. Timothée Chalamet brings the necessary gravitas to portray Paul Atreides, one of sci-fi’s greatest characters. He is everything expected of a lead protagonist and is quite possibly perfect casting. Another standout is Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen. His performance struck a balance between being a cruel yet cunning leader. This doesn’t come across as a caricature, and Skarsgård commands fear every time he is on screen. However, those excited to see Zendaya will be disappointed as she has a grand total of seven minutes of screen time in the 155-minute film. The rest of the cast, including Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem deliver standout performances across the board. Not one of them feels out of place in this intergalactic epic, and they add to the immersive world-building experience carefully crafted by Denis Villeneuve.
As the director of Blade Runner 2049, another visually arresting film, I had no doubt that Villeneuve could adapt Dune successfully to the big screen. What I had not anticipated, however, was just how impressive the cinematography would be. From the first to the last scene, each frame is akin to a work of art. The masterful use of CGI throughout helps bring this universe to life. Villeneuve grounds these fantastical elements by showing them from the characters’ perspectives. For example, when we first see a sandworm, Paul is in the foreground on an ornithopter which allows us to realise the massive size of these creatures. As the director said himself, Dune is made to be seen on the big screen. Yet whilst it augments the movie well, Hans Zimmer’s score fails to reflect the subtlety and finesse at which the rest of the film operates. The powerful sounds make for a great experience in a cinema but are ultimately entirely forgettable. However, a film cannot solely rely on visual and auditory spectacle as it will inevitably not hold up over time. Dune balances this with an excellent adaptation of Herbert’s plot, making for a gripping and well-told story, and ensuring that the film is not just style over substance. The biggest problem is the fact that it is only part one of the story. With the opening shot of the film being the title card “Dune: Part One” and closing with the words “this is just the beginning,” it remains to be seen how this film holds up in the larger narrative. Unlike other multi-part sagas such as The Lord of the Rings, Dune ends abruptly and lacks a traditional three-act structure within this first installment. It very much does feel like a first part, leaving the viewer somewhat unsatisfied. The real test will be whether Villeneuve can stick the landing in the next film, set for 2023. This should not dissuade you from going to see Dune, made for the cinematic experience, and I would highly recommend going to watch one of the best films of the year so far.
Image: Chia Bella James via Edinburgh Evening News