Released just weeks apart, two major movies have been tasked with the job of luring people back to the cinema after the pandemic delayed their original release dates. No Time to Die has done brisk business from its first weekend with fans arriving for midnight and early morning screenings that close the book on the Daniel Craig era in some style. Now, Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated adaptation of Dune is set to continue the cinema-going momentum with a film that speaks equally to the fan base who hold Frank Herbert’s original novel close to their hearts, and the casual viewer attracted by a stellar cast coming to the material for the first time.
On the surface, they may seem like entirely different propositions but Bond and Dune have a great deal in common; the growing appreciation for cinematography and the beautiful possibilities of light have been characteristic of the 007 movies since Sam Mendes took our breath away in Skyfall, while the insistence on real stunts and locations has been a calling card of the franchise over more than 60 years while other blockbusters have leaned in to CGI and backlot filming approaches. A child of the 1970s and 1980s, Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune adopts much the same approach, and while some CGI is required – it is a space film after all – the director situates his narrative style in the reality of locations and stunt-work that make this a very satisfying cinema experience.
At a small UK preview, screening at the BFI Southbank, Villeneuve described his setting as the “period-future,” a place that is recognisable in its visual aesthetic, with technologies in particular as well as costume design that reference medieval, Middle Ages and incongruously (but rather brilliantly) the 1980s, while simultaneously presenting a futuristic vision of inhospitable alien planets, sleek design and what is assumed to be cutting-edge assault weaponry. Together, this visual approach from Patrice Vermette creates instant familiarity for the viewer, easing us into a story that has just enough elements of identifiable human existence to introduce and frame the characters without needing to spend too much expositional time trying to get to grips with the context in which they are operating. Instead, with a bit of societal and political explanation, the story can hit the ground running.
Villeneuve’s masterstroke is to combine classic depictions of machinery but wrap them in futuristic packages, so many of the helicopter-like ships and guns are drawn from 1970s and 1980s references with buttons to press, monitors to track altitude, while the film also has an interest in the effect of knives, poisons and swords as well as the more explosive armoury that gives the film this depth. In fact, the influences from the big action movies and space films of these decades are clear, not only Star Wars of course, but, surprisingly, Top Gun which set a standard for the way in which the aerial attack and tracking sequences take place.
Villeneuve draws on Tony Scott’s prior work in showing both the high stakes perspective of the craft under attack, taking an internal and external cockpit perspective that shows the strain on the pilot – be it protagonist Paul or mentor Duncan (Jason Momoa) – as well as his view of enemy ships preparing to hone-in on their target. The quick cuts heighten the tension in these aerial battles, adding jeopardy in the same way that Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ experienced in simulator flights and MIG attacks which is an interesting reference point for a film set thousands of years beyond the action of Top Gun.
We see similar influences in Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West’s Medieval meets Middle East meets centuries from now dress design that also take-in a responsiveness to the desert elements so vital to the credible creation of place and character in Dune. To cope with heat and the often destructive sand-filled wind, fabrics are loose, blowsy or draped for both men and women when venturing beyond the Palace compound while drawing a determined class distinction between those growing up off-world (and in regal surroundings) and the Fremen desert community led by Javier Bardem’s Stilagar, seeking to protect themselves from the imposition of different colonialist communities.
The references to flexible and even fight-proof Medieval / Early Modern costume design are vast, most obviously Game of Thrones, The Witcher and films like Outlaw King, Macbeth and The King (also Timothee Chalamet), mixing with futurist and, even more notably, religious influences that favour high-necked, floor-length gowns for women at court. The famous stillsuit that protects fighters in battle, allowing them to breath in the spice-infused desert air, are built as grey exoskeletons, costumes that are given a uniform look and feel to strengthen the sense of conformity and military force – like the X-Men bodysuits from First Class but with added safety features in camouflage colours.
Villeneuve’s vision is complete and evocative, weaving these varied influences seamlessly together and then blending them with a sprawling dynastic story about the imposition of rulers, climate change and interplanetary political conflict that must display differences in class, culture, experience and belief while taking the hero on a coming-of-age journey that by the end of Part One leaves him ready to assume the responsibilities he has been born to, as well as those prophesised for him by believers seeking Messianic intervention and deliverance. That astute combination of visual spectacle, context creation and narrative development is achieved in a film that Villeneuve makes both epic and intimate, complex and driven specifically by Paul’s evolution and growing understanding that makes Dune an exciting and enthralling piece of cinema.
The family unit is an important construct in the first part of Dune, creating an interesting sense of inherited entitlement for a House given the opportunity to return to and rule their homeland, noting the generations before who, like Paul, have learned to fight, to participate in political counsels and to understand the culture of leadership. This coming-of-age trope is familiar, even in space movies where the hero is required to put those skills into practice before the end of the film to demonstrate his worthiness to inherit the mantles of his historic forebears.
Along the way, there must be trial and tribulation, suffering to shape the young protagonist, often with the sacrifice of a beloved item or companion, that gives personal depth to his quest. This, Dune manages particularly well as Paul adjusts not only to his new home but also to the budding responsibilities that his future requires of him. The sacrifices that inevitably accompany this before the end of Part One must leave him in a position to relinquish the past, knowing the his future is not only to apply his training but to forge a new path alone.
Chalamet is perfectly cast as Paul, carrying the film with considerable ease, and Villeneuve has been savvy in choosing an actor capable of great depth ad capacity. Action and Sci-fi movies have given gravitas to their subject matter by countering the CGI and action scenes with character development and, crucially, psychology. This has been best achieved with respected actors including McKellen and Stewart in the original X-Men series and then Fassbender and McAvoy (the more recent films suffering by moving away from their compelling chemistry). Likewise, Marvel has taken the once small role of Loki and, based largely on Hiddleston’s performance, created a beloved character with his own spin-off parallel world. Chalamet has those same qualities as an actor, able to express so much with few words while bringing a seriousness of purpose and grounding to the dialogue that helps to embed the film’s more fanciful tropes.
As he did with The King, Paul is also a creation feeling the burden of his father’s expectations and wanting to find a different, more responsive path. Sensitive and alive to the implication of conquest that his family’s presence represents, Chalamet’s Paul is initially dismissive of the various prophesies and predictions that accompany his arrival. Part of that coming-of-age journey is to recognise and understand the fallibility of his parents as he learns more about the religious background of his mother and the powers that his dual heritage brings.
Crucially, Chalamet has that double capacity to carry those weightier scenes involving family, politics and the future of an empire resting on his shoulders as well as credible action sequences as his character learns to fight, to escape and ultimately to lead as the events of Part One unfold. And charting Paul’s development across this film merges perfectly with the changing audience perspective so we, like the people of Arakkis see Paul evolve in Chalamet’s performance, absorbing the official lessons as well as the circumstantial changes that help his protagonist become a credible action hero by the end of the film, one who becomes an accepted and blooded fighter in a crucial test of mettle that leaves the story and the character on the cusp of significant change.
And part of this coming-of-age development is to live through and instigate the breakdown of pre-existing social structures, aided by those purposeful action sequences, discussed earlier, in which the life Paul has known and his support system are effectively curtailed. War in the later stages of Part One results in changes to the medieval hierarchy which had divided into three classifications, nobility, military services and established religious leaders, who held power within the court. In taking Paul through the story, a democratisation occurs both in his thinking and his position that leaves him closer to the forgotten native people of Arrakis, a point at which the character encounters the feared Fremen tribe and becomes synonymous with the natural world and the political emancipation and education that will seemingly determine his future path and the future stability of the planet.
Like Bond, Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser create a beautiful and artistic visual style for the film, most obviously referencing the epic desert films Lawrence of Arabia in the sheer scale and intensity of the landscape as well as The English Patient, notable particularly for Antony Minghella’s aerial shots that captured the undulating sand dunes which Villeneuve nods to here. But Fraser creates a place that is both glossy and forbidding, a dreamscape almost, often obscured by the particles of sand in the wind that blend the unmistakable location footage with the fantasy world of Arakkis. Together, these visual choices and production decisions give the film its authentic feel that help to underpin and properly situate the Atreides family saga.
With plenty of political, social and scientific messages in Herbert’s original novel as well as meaningful performances from a fine cast including Oscar Isaacs, Josh Brolin, Stelland Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling and Golda Rosheuvel plus cinematic influences from a huge range of action movies, there is plenty of depth and scope to Dune. The thoughtfulness of Villeneuve’s movie adaptation of Dune and the wide-ranging directorial, historic and aesthetic influences that combine to create this two-part production are hugely appealing, providing enough familiarity to root the story in a recognisable period-future context that enhances the central coming-of-age narrative.