Two of the most brooding, academic, philosophical, and beautiful sci-fi
productions in recent memory were Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049 —
both helmed by Denis Villeneuve. When I read that he was going to attempt to
film the unfilmable1Dune, I thought: “You know, he might
have a shot at it.” I’m glad to say that he succeeded in the impossible: he has
made / is making a Dune film worthy of the source material.2
Vision / Understanding the Source Material
Talking books with another human is a strange experience. If we strip away the
fact that we’ve become comfortable with them, our questions to each other might
“Did the letter-shapes convince your brain to hallucinate in a way such that,
when externally viewed as if you were a viewer on your hallucination, you
“Did you hallucinate this impossible scenario similarly?”
Foremost, looking at the visuals, sets, and costumes, Villeneuve’s vision is
within distances that feel small to my own hallucinations. Sure, I never
imagined many of the details that he put on-screen, but, in substance, my brain
recognizes his presented vision came from a hallucination similar to mine. True
fans knew where to expect the gasp moments. Seeing those moments and then
hearing the gasps of fellow true believers and their less-rabid friends
confirmed that Villeneuve was one of us and was succeeding in weaving a
spectacle that united all our individual hallucinations into his.
In many places, Villeneuve opted for practical effects or shoots on location. As
such the world looks lived-in, and real.
Pacing / Talking to Myself
One of the real challenges of in the book of Dune is that as Paul’s mind is
warped by his spice overdoses, he talks to himself. Well, that makes for boring
in a medium whose primary decree is “show don’t tell.” I can remember whole
scenes (emphasis on the plural, there) of Kyle MacLachlan whispering to himself
in the Lynch version.
Instead of transplanting the talking bits from Herbert’s source and repeating
them as apostrophe, Villeneuve demands his Paul show something in his
expression, in his posture. Fortunately Timothée Chalamet is up to this
requirement. Villeneuve intercuts visions occasionally and adds in
mysterious audio cues, but what they mean, why, and where they’re coming from
are left mysterious. All we, and Paul, are given is some insight and an aching
curiosity about why it came. It cuts down scene runtime and builds mystery.
That Villeneuve threads that balance is a tribute to his decision-making.
In general, though, his choice to be comfortable with the mysteries of the
Dune-universe is just a specific case of a consistent directorial choice.
Villeneuve has enough French film (he’s French-Canadian) history in his DNA
that he can simply let beautiful images be; even strange, wild, sci-fi
images. He lets beautiful, strange images just sit on screen. Much as he did
in BR: 2049
or the alien sequences in Arrival:
In Villeneuve, fantastically composed scenes are given time on screen to
An invading, floating, and corpulent baron enters, after his blitzkrieg, in
silhouette. His troops march. He floats. He’s in no hurry. He doesn’t need to
hurry to gloat, he has utterly won.
Later, we see Oscar Isaac composed like a Caravaggio as a nude prisoner before
Later yet, we see sunlight play in the redoubt where Idaho will show his
devotion and lethal skill.
The casting for this film was stellar throughout. While I praised Momoa
(“Idaho”), I’d also like to call out Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson.
Every time I see Chalamet off-screen, he strikes me as being an affable stoner
or skateboarder who’s inclined to knock-off a sideview mirror on your car on
accident while doing some trick between grape Slush Puppy sips in the parking
lot of a 7-11. But, I cannot deny, on-screen, he’s got presence and control.
He was stellar in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Wes Anderson’s
The French Dispatch, and here as well.
For her part, Ferguson does a wonderful job bringing a much richer range of
emotions to Lady Jessica. While I still love Francesca Annis’ portrayal in the
Lynch version, Ferguson tones down the queenly imperiousness and amps up the
resourcefulness, latent violence, intelligence, and sorrow of Jessica and
brings her closer to my imagining of her character based on the book.
The movie starts in a novel way. While Lynch’s version starts with Princess
Irulan, daughter to the Emperor, narrating the beginning of the events of
Dune from an Imperial perspective, Villeneuve starts by letting an
oppressed native, suffering under colonialist exploitation, tell where her
history is. It puts the thread around resource extraction, climate change,
opportunism between church and empire, and oppression that’s front-and-center
in the book in a marquee position.
The movie also makes a novel non-focus of the trip from the Atriedes
homeworld of Caladan to Arrakis. Knowing that we know what fold-space or
faster-than-light travel is in the 21st century, Villeneuve skips
the presentation and leaves it at: The Guild has a monopoly, they use spice to
make it happen, and it happened here. Now, desert.
Sets and Costume
Just to repeat, the costumes are stellar. On their arrival, Jessica’s bronze
gown with a head mask made of chains and a train whipping in the wind tells us
so much about her strength, her obligation, and her royalty. Throughout the
runtime the costumes are phenomenal.
Similarly, the sets are fantastical with early-60’s sci-fi grooviness embedded
in the typefaces, wall art, and cues from Middle Eastern life.
SPOILER WARNING After this point, some slight hints may be dropped that may
spoil parts of the film or characters’ fates.
Updating the Source Material
If carefully recreating a common thread to all the mind-hallucinations that the
fans had of the book was table stakes, Villeneuve shows himself to be gifted in
that he makes a few edits to some of the characters’ arcs that, I’d contend,
improve the story.
“Duncan Idaho” played by Jason Momoa
Much as Boba Fett has always held an outsize fascination for some Empire
Strikes Back fans, Idaho, played perfectly by the magnetic, affable, and
joyous Momoa, has always had a cult following in the Dune fandom. In the
book, well, he dies early. Idaho is overwhelmed by the imperial
thumb-on-the-scale assault wave of Sardukar (elite troops) during the
blitzkrieg. Villeneuve must have sensed that this was an error and gives Idaho
more stage time and a longer life so that we can see why Paul might be so
deeply loyal to this man. In the books, deep loyalty to Idaho becomes a major
plot point in the second books onward.
“Liet Kynes” played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster
Similarly to Idaho, the planetologist Kynes (a gender-swap from the book) gets
a swift and inglorious death in the book. He’s stripped of his stillsuit and
tossed into his desert. Dehydrated and near death, he finds an
instant-quicksand patch of sand and is swallowed by the planet. The end.
Villeneuve extends this Kynes’ arc by letting her ferocity, capability, and
resourcefulness shine through until she’s murdered on her feet, like a warrior,
like an inhabitant of both the Fremen and Imperial worlds.
“Beast Rabban” played by Dave Bautista
Played for grotesque camp in Lynch’s Dune, Villeneuve’s interpretation of the
Baron’s lackey and unwitting dupe in a secret plan held by the Baron (Stellan
Skarsgård) is done wonderfully with a lot of subtlety by Dave Bautista.
Bautista, fresh from multiple outings as the affectless Drax the Destroyer in
the Marvel universe, has clearly given a lot of time to thinking about “What do
dim-witted muscle-men actually think?”
In a pivotal scene, Rabban encounters plans and calumnies that are beyond his
grasp. He doesn’t understand why Arrakis, the planet Dune, is being taken away
from them after they exploited and oppressed so well for so many years. What’s
a character written as an emotional, violent, strong, oaf to do? Bautista does
the most reasonable thing possible: he asks someone he regards as cunning and
perfidious to explain it. He’s not smart, and he’s smart enough to know that;
but, in the way that he knows he is stronger than most and he is scary for it,
he also knows others are smarter than most and scary for it. He asks his uncle,
the Baron, to explain what happened. It’s a moment where Villeneuve helps a
character become more full and catches the audience up on a subtle piece of
It’s insightful decisions like these that repeatedly confirm Villeneuve’s
unique talent for guiding this effort.
Kwisatz Haderach Description
One of the key plot points is that Paul Atriedes might be the achieved goal of
a centuries-long eugenics program; he might be a being known as the Kwisatz
Haderach. While the book and Lynch both take this term to mean a spiritual
guru, Villeneuve guides a different interpretation from the mouth of the
Revered Mother Mohaim (played by Charlotte Rampling). Her guidance is that this
being’s brain and mind will be different. Because his physical brain will
be “improved,” his mind will be able to consider outside the bounds of the
Kantian conditions of experience: space and time. That is, the two fundamental
axes which bind perception will not bind his thinking.
This has wonderful echoes in the universe: guild navigators travel space by
“folding” it, Paul is awakening to the ability to see the future (or, is that,
not be confused into seeing a difference between “now’ and “then?). This is a
really exciting interpretation of this mythical title and keeps Paul and his
significance in a more mechanistic version of reality.
Additionally, in describing the KH, the Revered Mother hints that Paul might
very well fall short of the target. But she also admits he’s close, and might
manage to save himself / be of some use if the right circumstances happen about
him. But the circumstance is left unnamed. We, as an audience, see the thing
she feared as dramatic irony: massive, repeated, spice saturation is the
condition that might unlock KH channels in Paul’s mind. Thus, we, as the
audience, see Paul zoning out in spice reveries, gaining knowledge, falling
incapacitated…but we understand why and we also understand that the
long-term effects might be to unlock an awesome and terrible, godlike even,
power latent within him.
All told, I thought this was a brilliant interpretation that was cohesive and
honored the book. Bravo.
Background on the agony and ecstasy of previous attempts to film Dune
History of (Mostly-Failed) Dune Film Adaptations
When I first read the book, in the early-90’s, I soaked it up and then went to
see the glorious folly that was David Lynch’s film adaptation. With the vast
budgets of the de Laurentiis production house, the toast of early 80’s European
cinema as cast, stunning sets, and fully-realized costume, it was an epic
disaster — a beautiful catastrophe. Apparently during the initial
release, a pamphlet was given to viewers that outlined some vocabulary and key
players. That is a death-knell 💀. The story seemed too big between the
political players and the mental transformation of the protagonist, Paul
Atriedes. Additionally the film suffered for Lynch being Lynch:
Overlong scenes depicting floating space fetuses with mouth vaginas folding
space. No, really:
Over-literal lifting of dialogue from the book
Unrestrained direction of actors, chiefly Kenneth McMillan’s “Baron
Harokonnen” who floats into the camp stratosphere with his grotesquerie
Inexplicable additions like:
Harkonnen citizens have pull-tab vales in their hearts for easy killing
A cat-rat hybrid
A magic space sidearm powered by sound (what?!)
In the 2000, the Sci-Fi network made a miniseries adaptation. While these had
some improvements, they missed other marks. Taking advantage of decreasing
costs of green-screen/CGI and Eastern European filming, Sci-Fi stretched their
budget, and proved that a longer runtime would provide the ability to stake out
the political factions properly. Nevertheless, these movies look less
substantial than Lynch’s outing by preferring green screen/CGI to (Lynch
staple) practical effects.
Additionally, the inexplicably wooden portrayal by William Hurt as Paul’s
doomed father, Leto, ruined the opening act (what in hell were they going
for?). Additionally, it’s amazing that in a universe made up of far-flung
humanity surviving a population apocalypse, everyone is Caucasian. The series
was also made slightly before the “peak TV” phenomenon where we realized that
some of the biggest “movie” talents shine better on TV than in film: in this
case, the acting talent is clearly second-tier to the work in the Lynch
I had largely considered Dune unfilmable. It features
internecine ducal political dynamics on the scale of Game of Thrones. Its
realization calls for practical effects, casts of hundreds, custom sets, and
top-flight costumes. And when the plot isn’t space-Borgia Italy, it’s a man
experiencing his consciousness rewiring itself from the inside— not
the stuff ideal for a visual medium. All told, these constraints stand make
production expensive and yet shortchanging on any of them would lead to
another failure to film the story. For more on the failures, see the
Full disclosure: I am a hugeDune universe fan. I have
read the first book somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty times and the
entire original series at least twice. I have whole passages of dialogue
memorized for no reason other than sheer exposure. I am squarely in the