DUne, the French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s long-gestating version of the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, is a deeply weird blockbuster. I mean that as a compliment; Villeneuve’s adaptation of what many consider to be the paragon of futurist sci-fi stays true to the book’s disinterest in pandering, but turns what could be impossibly tricky, alienating material into world-building at its finest.
The film is awash in strange, unnerving details – the black-oil baths and throat-singing on a rainy planet of mercenaries, human computers whose eyes roll back into their heads – whose utmost seriousness is compelling rather than off-putting. (Not that the Academy will account for this, but Dune is a great movie for memes.) In a gutsy move, Villeneuve chose to adapt just the novel’s first half before a second film was even greenlit, which results in a movie that defies the usual three-act structure and crashing resolution of the typical big-screen blockbuster. Instead, watching Dune is a submersion in several classic storylines – inheritance, political intrigue, resource wars, angsty coming of age – that slowly, richly unfurl in a society that actually feels alien.
In other words, it’s a vibe, in the least flippant sense of the word. Villeneuve’s Dune is a masterful and strange piece of collaborative imagination, an epic scale that conveys in a way few massive films do, and a vision of a future society that conjures, disconcertingly and then thrillingly, the awe of encountering the otherworldly. That’s all the most impressive considering the source material; Herbert’s novel is dense, cerebral, unwelcoming to strangers and notoriously “unadaptable.” The book drops you into the geopolitical manoeuvrings of a feudal interplanetary society 20,000 years from now and expects you to keep up. (It has taken me four months and multiple viewings of the film to chip away at the first 250 pages.)
Somehow said maneuvers are more vague than tedious, and the acting sharp enough to hold the emotional center. Paul Atreides, a lonely aristocrat weighted with prophecy, who is somewhere between ages 15 and 24 depending on the scene, is the role Timotheé Chalamet was born to play. Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac are excellent as his parents beleaguered him. Most importantly, Villeneuve’s ability to convey vast discrepancies of scale, as evinced by the skyscraper-tall oblong spaceships in his 2016 film Arrival, is repeatedly stunning, especially when viewed on a big screen – massive sandworms consuming waves of sand, imposing interplanetary aircraft carriers before a gargantuan planet, remote assassins the size of one’s palm.
Dune is perhaps too arcane a film, too uninterested in nostalgia or timeliness, to register with Academy voters over, say, Belfast. There is also fair criticism of the film’s use of imagery and culture from the Middle East and north Africa (MENA) for the Fremen, the indigenous people of Dune (the planet), without using a MENA actor. (The plot of Dune does read, in 2022, as a barely disguised parable for oil in the Middle East.)
But if the Oscars are, in theory, an occasion to reward excellence in the collaborative art of film-making and to celebrate the visual narrative heights such a medium can achieve, then there’s a case for Dune. All films are a feat of cooperation, some more than others, but Dune is a testament to scores and scores of people working at the highest level. Costume designers, set scouts, visual effects, stunt work, sound design – every level of film-making is on fine form in Dune. It’s unfortunately rare to watch a film and be struck by sound editing, but Dune’s sonic range, from terrific, heart-rewiring Hans Zimmer score to pinprick silence, was a catharsis all its own.
More than any other film I’ve seen in the past year, Dune conjured a distinctive, mesmeric feel – a cinematic experience that provokes an earnest appreciation for simply living in an age where such a scale is possible on screen. That’s not, I suppose, the earnestness the Academy usually goes for, but they could do worse than acknowledge the outer reaches of cinematic scale and ambition.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism