Hailed as one of the biggest films of this year in terms of scale and expectations, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is centred on a galactic conflict. The epic sci-fi film involves noble houses, an emperor, a powerful order and the inhabitants of a planet that holds the most important element in the Dune universe.
The film is slated to be the first of a two-part series. It is based on the 1965 book of the same name by Frank Herbert. Since its announcement, the film has remained a talking point for a multitude of reasons, starting with the director’s ability to represent Herbert’s vision in the adaptation to Dune’s planned release on HBO Max, which was opposed by many stakeholders.
Its crew includes music director Hans Zimmer who famously turned down his long-time collaborator Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) to work on this film. The screenplay is by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth. Cinematographer Greig Fraser is the director of photography.
So what is the film all about, and is it going to be any different from Herbert’s books?
First, the film’s plot
Dune is set in the distant future — many millennia away — where travelling between planets is as normal as moving between cities in our time.
The film follows the first half of Herbert’s book and is centred on House Atreides — the noble family of planet Caladan, which is headed by Duke Leto Atreides. He is made in charge of a desert planet known as Arrakis.
The planet is dangerous because of its near inhospitable and sandy terrain as well as gigantic sandworms lurking underneath the surface.
However, Arrakis is crucial as it produces a substance called “spice” — the fuel used by all machines that travel between planets. It is also a drug that gives extraordinary abilities to humans besides turning their eyes blue.
The Dune trailer shows House Atreides being assigned to planet Arrakis and hints at what Paul Atreides, Leto’s son with concubine Lady Jessica, is going to face.
Aided by his House’s trusted lieutenants Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho, Paul takes matters into his own hands as he realises the gravity of the threat to his House and dear ones from conspirators such as the House Harkonnen led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.
Upon landing on planet Arrakis, Paul Atreides encounters Chani — a native Fremen who live in tribes known as sietches and one of which is led by Stilgar. We also see him coming face-to-face with a sandworm.
How different is the book?
Herbert was inspired to write Dune after his 1957 trip to the coastal side of Florence, Oregon, US. It was originally published in a serialised form in the magazine Analog.
Following the book’s publication, it received widespread critical acclaim, a measure of which can be seen in the words of praise that sci-fi great Arthur C. Clarke showered upon the book.
“I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings,” he remarked, referring to J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic high-fantasy masterpiece that is considered one of the greatest works in English literature.
It earned Herbert a Hugo Award and the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel — two of literature’s most prestigious prizes.
And here is the crucial thing about Dune: it is not a single book. Dune is, in fact, the first of the six novels that Herbert wrote till 1985.
Together, the books cover the entire saga of the noble houses, Paul and his descendant, Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV of House Corrino, his military force known as Sardaukar, the matriarchal order called Bene Gesserit, Guild Navigators, and every tribe, organisation, religious groups and other orders.
They explain certain happenings and things in Dune’s universe, such as the absence of computers because of a war known as Butlerian Jihad thousands of years before the events here. They also dive deep into ecology, religion (particularly the concept of the messiah) and sociology, which were Herbert’s subjects of interest.
Since 1999, Frank’s son Brian Herbert and author Kevin J. Anderson have published many novels that serve as prequels and sequels to the original one. There are a total of 21 books, including those by Brian Herbert and his father, that cover the Dune universe.
The cast of Dune
The cast of Dune is a coup for casting agents. Packed with some of Hollywood’s biggest and well-established actors, it also boasts two of the industry’s most promising talents as its main protagonists.
Paul Atreides is played by Timothée Chalamet, the young handsome actor who was recently featured on the cover of Time magazine. He has already become an enigma at the age of 25 with critically acclaimed films such as Call Me by Your Name (2017), Lady Bird (2017), The King (2019) and Little Women (2019).
Besides Dune, Chalamet will also have another release on the same day — Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (2021).
Oscar Isaac plays Duke Leto Atreides. Isaac, who is better known to Star Wars fans for playing Poe Dameron in the latest trilogy of the main continuity, has received critical praise for acting in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), A Most Violent Year (2014), Ex Machina (2014) and the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero (2015).
Lady Jessica’s role is played by Rebecca Ferguson. The Swedish actress is globally renowned for playing Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) and following MI films. Her stellar body of work includes movies and miniseries such as The White Queen (2013), The Girl on the Train (2016) and Reminiscence (2021).
Chani is essayed by Zendaya. Starting her career as a child artist, Zendaya became famous as MJ in the Spider-Man films by the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). She won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2020 for her role in the TV series Euphoria (2019—)
Other major cast members include Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban and Javier Bardem as Stilgar.
Brolin is best known for playing Thanos in the MCU films while Momoa, who is immortal as Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones, is now everyone’s favourite Aquaman in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU).
Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård is one of the greatest performers in cinema and the legendary Bardem remains the first and only male Spanish actor to have won an Academy Award when he took the statuette for Best Supporting Actor for No Country for Old Men (2007).
What do the initial reviews say?
Dune currently enjoys a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 90 percent, which indicates an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the film.
“Okay, technically it doesn’t have an ending, and not everyone will get along with the levels of patience Villeneuve demands of his audience, but those who do will be rewarded with precise storytelling, visual fireworks and some god-level world-building,” writes Philip De Semlyen in his review for Time Out.
Stephanie Zacharek of TIME Magazine calls Dune “sluggish in places” but appreciates Villeneuve’s overall work. “…what Villeneuve has put onscreen proves, at the very least, that he respects the source material to just the right degree. He neither genuflects to it nor tries to tart it up as a flashy, self-satisfied blockbuster flimflam,” Zacharek writes.
Writing for RogerEbert.com, Glenn Kenny remarks: “Throughout, the filmmaker [Villeneuve], working with amazing technicians including cinematographer Greig Fraser, editor Joe Walker, and production designer Patrice Vermette, manages to walk the thin line between grandeur and pomposity.”
Though Mick LaSalle of San Francisco Chronicle appreciates the film, he underlines that the “movie’s length is, at times, a challenge”. Delivering a negative review, Mark Hanson of Slant Magazine criticises the film’s length, pacing and “extended prologue for what one can only hope will be a sequel that will clarify its parables and paradoxes.”
Is Dune the first film adaptation of the book?
No, Villeneuve’s film is not the first.
Attempts to make a movie on Herbert’s novels have been on since the early 1970s, but none materialised in the early years. Among the most notable was avant-garde master Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempted adaptation of the books. Salvador Dali was supposed to play the Emperor and Orson Welles was to star as Baron Harkonnen in this film, but it could not fructify. A 2013 documentary film — Jodorowsky’s Dune — traces the director’s failed attempt at making the first Dune movie.
The first film adaptation of the book was released in 1984 and directed by the iconic David Lynch. Starring Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, Jürgen Prochnow as Duke Leto, Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica, Sean Young as Chani and Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck, Dune covered the first book. Even music legend Sting played a prominent character in the film.
However, it was a terrible failure at the box office. Critics lampooned it, with the late Roger Ebert calling it a “real mess”.
In 2000, John Harrison wrote and directed Frank Herbert’s Dune — a three-part miniseries on Herbert’s book aired on the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy). It was a success and won two Primetime Emmy Awards in technical categories.
Its 2003 sequel, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, which was directed by Greg Yaitanes, was also a success and won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects.
The delay and eventual release
Dune was initially supposed to release on 20 November, 2020, as announced by Warner Bros. the year prior. Mere months after the initial announcement, the film was moved to an 18 December release date.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, leading to a spate of delays in nearly all the movies slated for release in 2020. Dune was among them.
As the pandemic continued unbridled over the world, Dune was postponed to 1 October, 2021. It was eventually set for a 22 October 2021 release date in the US.
The film premiered at the 78th Venice International Film Festival on 3 September this year and was subsequently released in several countries in Europe and Asia, starting 15 September. India and China, the two major film markets apart from the US, will witness Dune hitting the screens on 22 October.
The controversy over HBO Max release
When Warner Bros. announced that Dune will follow the hybrid model designed for its films set for release in 2021, several prominent filmmakers, including Villeneuve, opposed the decision.
As per the hybrid model, a Warner Bros. film is released simultaneously on HBO Max for 31 days, from the day it is released in theatres.
According to a December 2020 Deadline report, Legendary, the production house, which financed three-fourth of the film’s budget, was also not pleased.
Villeneuve was more vocal; the same month, he published an essay in Variety sharply criticising the entertainment conglomerate over its decision.
“With this decision, AT&T has hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history,” he wrote.
The essay further stated: “There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here. It is all about the survival of a telecom mammoth, one that is currently bearing an astronomical debt of more than $150 billion.”
“Filmmaking is a collaboration, reliant on the mutual trust of teamwork and Warner Bros. has declared they are no longer on the same team,” Villeneuve asserted.
Calling Dune the “best movie I’ve ever made”, the director underlined that it took three years for his team to make the film “a unique big-screen experience”.
Despite criticisms, Warner Bros. did not change its plans and films that it released through 2021 also had simultaneous releases on HBO Max.
Dune will be in theaters and on HBO Max, only on the Ad-Free plan streaming in the US for 31 days from its theatrical release.
— HBO Max (@hbomax) July 21, 2021
On 21 July, 2021, HBO Max put out a tweet confirming the film’s release on the streaming platform on the same day it dropped on the big screen in the US.
(Main and Featured images: Dune Movie/Facebook)