Venice 2021: Denis Villeneuve's 'Dune' Delivers on the Impossible
by David Mouriquand
September 17, 2021
Denis Villeneuve specializes in delivering on the seemingly impossible. Over the last 10 years, he's made his English-language debut with one of the best thrillers of the last decade (Prisoners), given us one of the most satisfying-yet-confounding final shots in recent memory (Enemy), redefined how stressful traffic jams are (Sicario), expertly baked our noodles by cutting his sci-fi teeth on adapting Ted Chiang's cerebral short story "Story of Your Life" (Arrival), and given us a delayed sequel to one of the most beloved sci-fi epics and, against all odds, made it the original's equal if not superior (Blade Runner 2049). And yet, adapting Frank Herbert's famously sprawling (some might say tortuously impenetrable) epic sci-fi novel "Dune" may be his most ambitious undertaking to date – especially when considering the space saga previously defeated Jodorowsky and made David Lynch a very unhappy camper back in 1984, denouncing it as "a total failure."
So, is it third time lucky for the apparently unfilmable Dune?
The answer is a resounding: Yes. Villeneuve's Dune is a triumph and nothing could have prepared me for how much I was going to be floored by this mammoth undertaking and cinematic achievement. I have to admit I wasn't entirely convinced by the trailers, there were already exhausting talks of extended cuts that needed to be released, and the full-steam hype-train can often be a major blockbuster's worst enemy. A mind-killer, one might say. Plus, this is Dune – Part One, to proclaim its full title, and I'm usually quite weary of blockbusters that brazenly announce from the get-go that I won't be getting the full story in one sitting and will have to bide my time to get the full picture. But, as one character is told: "When you have lived with prophecy for so long, the moment of revelation is a shock." And what a shock this was.
For those not up to speed with the premise, Dune follows the messianic Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet) as he comes to terms with his purpose in a feudal interstellar society divided by conflict over the exclusive control of Spice, a psychoactive chemical that preserves life, has untold mental-enhancing benefits and is key to interstellar travel. Basically, there's not much the finely granulated commodity can't do. The all-star ensemble cast joining him on his hero's journey includes the ever-gloriously-haired Oscar Isaac (who's having a busy 2021 Venice, with Dune, Paul Schrader's revenge noir The Card Counter, and the Ingar Bergmann TV miniseries update "Scenes from a Marriage" from HBO all screening at the festival), Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, and some frustratingly brief glimpses of Zendaya – who apparently will get more screentime in the sequel. No more shall be spoilt here, except to say that those who live with the constant threat of colossal sandworm attacks won't have a great time and that fans praying the infamous "What's in the box?"–"Pain" line made the cut will not be disappointed.
The screenplay written by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth impressively untangles the novel's knotty lore and quickly puts to bed any fears that you will need to frantically sketch out family trees and fashion a glossary in order to understand who's who and what's what on Arrakis. At the heart of the streamlined narrative is a typical "The One" bloodline prophecy, which can seem a bore considering the countless monomyths we're bombarded with on the big screen; but considering Herbert's source material originally inspired Star Wars, The Matrix, and many more, it's impressive that the familiar blueprint never comes to the detriment of some highly-engrossing stakes.
Where Villeneuve's Dune really impresses, however, is visually. It provoked a sense of visual wonder that reminded me of the first time I saw The Fifth Element in the cinema when I was a jaw-dropped 12-year-old reluctant to leave 23rd Century Earth. Villeneuve's spectacle is a bombastic yet uncluttered one, much like the architecture that production designer Patrice Vermette treats us to. The gloriously immersive cinematography by Greig Fraser complements the spaces and the moody tone, as the foreboding grey hues are lit up by shards of light and golden yellow washes. As for the CGI, the breathtaking effects are as close to photorealistic as it comes, and you can bet that not a soul will complain when Dune scoops up every visual gong under the sun come awards season.
It should come as no surprise that Dune is an opus that needs to be seen in a cinema. It is a feast for the retinas and the ears, which cry out for the biggest screen possible, with a sound system that does the drum-heavy score by Hans Zimmer and the gripping sound design justice. Much ink has been spilt over Warner Bros' HBO Max distribution arrangement for 2021, which stipulates that the film's theatrical opening will coincide with the streaming release as well (starting on October 21st in the UK, October 22nd in the US – although most European audiences get lucky real fast, when it opens there on September 16th).
During early promotional interviews, Denis Villeneuve expressed his disappointment in this day-and-date model by describing watching Dune on a small screen akin to "driv(ing) a speedboat in your bathtub", going on to state in his less tub-centric director's statement that "the big screen is not just another format, it is at the core of the cinematographic language." No disagreement here, especially after what he's just shown us: If there's a big screen experience to have this year, make it Dune. All that's left to do is echo the line "This is only the beginning", and say: Bring on the sequel. And hell, since Frank Herbert eventually wrote five sequels to the original novel, can we have them too? After all, nothing's impossible for Denis Villeneuve.
David's Venice 2021 Rating: 5 out of 5
David Mouriquand is the film editor at Exberliner - read more of his work here: exberliner.com