This spoiler-free initial preview of Dune comes from the film’s world premiere at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival. Dune hits US theaters on October 22. Stay tuned for a full review as the film’s release nears.
Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s landmark 1965 novel that was once considered infilmable, has finally hit the screen after a long and arduous journey. With dizzying anticipations, worries that the film will only adapt a half-story (the on-screen title is Dune: part one), and a dense and complex mythology to rival the biggest franchises in pop culture, Dune has the potential to be either a colossal disaster or just the thing to fill the void left by The Mandalorian and Game Of Thrones. We’ve seen the movie, and before our official review, here’s a spoiler-free look at what to expect from Villeneuve. Dunewhether you are familiar with the Herbert myth or are just looking for the next great space opera.
Dune takes place in the far, far distant future, at a time when the known galaxy is ruled by a feudal system of great houses, all of which answer to an emperor. The film follows young nobleman Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) as his family becomes the new stewards of planet Arrakis, source of the universe’s most important substance – the spice blend, which prolongs human life, bestows improved capabilities and fuels faster – more than light travel. But when House Atreides is attacked, Paul must wander the ruthless and dangerous deserts of Arrakis and enlist the help of the indigenous population of the planet, the Fremen nomads.
With 14 books telling an epic story spanning hundreds of characters across millennia, the Dune the novel series is an intimidating property to engage with. But the initial film is surprisingly accessible, even to viewers who haven’t read any of Herbert’s work, especially compared to the 1984 David Lynch film adapting the same material. Of course, it helps to get familiar with some of the details of the setting and terminology, or to know the houses and characters in advance, so that you can remember which is which.
But the script (from Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) does an impressive job of explaining how the world works. There is one exception: because history borrows a lot from Arab history, culture, and imagery, there are a lot of terms that can be a bit difficult to understand without subtitles, especially when they are spoken by different non-MENA actors with very different accents.
The first act of the film is more like the premiere of Game Of Thrones that the opening act of Star wars. Dune does not follow the traditional call to adventure we have seen in the travels of many heroes – instead, it focuses first on building the whole and establishing the political state of the known universe. It feels like what we are seeing is just the last page of a chapter that began centuries ago, in a story that has lasted for millennia. It might sound intimidating, but the film is admirably selective about detail, filling in just enough for audiences to follow the story, but not so much that it can lecture on the inner workings of the Atreid ancestral home, Caladan. .
With so many traditions and history to showcase, it’s almost a miracle that Dune does not use a lot of exposure. It even avoids the Trope “as you know”, where the characters discuss things that they are all already aware of. Much of the news dumps come in the form of short documentaries that Paul Atreides watches to find out more about Arrakis before he goes there, like some sort of Wikipedia entry on the planet. When Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica (Reminiscence‘s Rebecca Ferguson) talks to Paul about the key societal role of his organization, the Bene Gesserit, this is really new information for him, due to the secrecy of the Bene Gesserit. Likewise, much of the information the film explains to audiences are hidden traditions that the characters learn alongside the audience, which helps to make Dune feel like an inhabited universe, in the same way as the original Star wars let viewers experience the story alongside Luke Skywalker.
But Villeneuve’s take on Herbert’s material spends just as much time satisfying longtime fans who want to see their favorite scenes or characters come to life. The French-Canadian director has a similar eye for the unique sci-fi visuals he brought to Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, and apply it to the sand dunes of Arrakis. He spends a lot of time taking pictures of awe-inspiring alien vistas and intricate palaces, striving to create each new world in Dune looks like nothing we’ve seen onscreen before.
Just like Hans Zimmer said he was committed to making the movie ring alien, Villeneuve makes sure Dune watch the part, too. Spaceships are huge and round in a way that goes beyond conventional physics. (A few of the spaceships look more like the designs from the Apple Store than any airplane that could fly in real-world space.) The geometric designs of the cities and costumes make each planet distinct and recognizable. , beyond being simply “the ice planet” or “the desert planet”.
Those familiar with the books or the adaptation of Lynch may be intrigued to see that Villeneuve Dune places greater importance on the people of Arrakis, doing more than just tools and cannon fodder. The 1980s version of Lynch’s film opens with a narration from historian Bene Gesserit, Princess Irulan, about how important the spice is and why it is so coveted. But Villeneuve instead has the warrior Fremen Chani (Zendaya) talking about the people of Arrakis and how they are submissive.
Likewise, the film spends a considerable amount of time questioning the idea of a Messiah, not as a title, but in how the very idea of a chosen one can influence changes in a society. For better or worse, the story’s Arab influences suggest a very different kind of hero journey than Westerners are used to seeing, though the film’s cast indicates a mixed understanding and appreciation of these cultural influences.
The last line of the movie is “This is the Beginning”, and watch Dune: part one, with its awe-inspiring visuals and focus on larger societies and nations rather than an individual hero, it’s easy to hope this is a prophecy coming true. Against all expectations, Villeneuve’s film not only lives up to the reputation of its raw material, but also of the reputation it has built for itself as one of our best directors of the genre. Finally, the spice will flow.