As soon as that deep bellow erupted in the din of the theater, I was wholly (holy?) immersed in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. When that tribal beat shook the shit outta my seat – rocking the theater and the surrounding area it felt like – my body was READY. Dune is far from the first blockbuster of the year yet it feels monumentally bigger than Godzilla fighting Kong, than Dwayne Johnson’s everything—larger than anything put out by Marvel or DC in 2021 put together. It’s amazing what filmmakers can achieve with a single frame when you’re patient enough to fill the panorama of the big screen. Many movies strive for a proper use of the word, “epic.” Dune is the only one so far this year where the word hardly does it any justice.
Dune, in a weird way, made me appreciate the small things—the spectacle we take for granted. Things like spaceships landing or taking off, the sight of gargantuan planets and eclipsing moons, and rows upon rows of soldiers marching by the thousands. We see all of the above all the damn time in Star Wars and Star Trek and barely pay any mind because we’re so used to frenetic aerial battles and highly stylized warfare.
Denis Villeneuve reframes what we’ve come to define as “spectacle.” That shot of the Harkonnen harvester in the opening felt fucking MASSIVE. Or when that gigantic testicle (sorry) of an Imperium ship lands on the Atreides’ home world Caladan, I nearly fainted from the enormity of the scale. And when that mighty show-stopping sandworm comes charging on Paul and Gurney’s heels, my ass was rendered comatose.
These are all single frames by the way. Villenueve doesn’t whip the camera or cut around to give you a 360-field view. He holds the camera long enough for your eyes to do the three-dimensional work. Villeneuve embraces stillness as an aesthetic and it makes us feel like we’re right there in the sand with Paul, mouth wide open and our bodies frozen in awe as we’re about to be swallowed whole by this gargantuan thing in front of us. If you suffer from jaw-clenching as I do, then the sheer size of Dune’s scope ought to fix that for ya, no problem.
Dune made me re-appreciate sound in the cinematic equation. We think it’s the big screen that immerses us in the viewing experience. True, but it’s only half. Sound is the other crucial half that closes in the distance between audience and screen. And it’s not about thundering beats or an overwhelming sound mix blaring at you consistently at full volume either. It’s about the moments in between that welcome the stillness and silence. When the Bene Gesserit departs Caladan, it’s a symphony of thrusters and an ominous choir that makes the moment feel properly sacred and forbidden, and it’s followed by an almost whisper quiet conversation between Paul and his mother Jessica on notions of duty and destiny.
When the Atreides clan lands on Arrakis, and Paul and his family wait for the bay doors to open, it’s a quiet exchange of eyelines before it opens up, letting in air, sand, and light, with a gradually increasing score accompanying a pivotal (and fatal) step for House Atreides. We feel how loud it is because we’re allowed to bask in the silence from time to time and vice versa. Dune, on that front, is a straight up pulverizing audio experience on top of a visual one.
This is Villeneuve’s strength as filmmaker across Prisoners, Sicario, and Blade Runner 2049. These aren’t feel-good stories so I understand Villeneuve is an acquired taste for some. But he cares bottom-line about what’s in the frame moment to moment and that’s why I love his movies. Nothing is gateway or throwaway to get to the money shot or the set-pieces. Villeneuve could not care less about action, and is instead more fascinated with the function it serves the story. He values emotion and how the moving image can impart feeling over the usual sci-fi fanfare. Notice how the movie cuts away from Gurney and the Atreides army as they charge forth at the invading House Harkonnen – a sequence that other filmmakers would’ve indulged for the sake of violence. Villeneueve is as sparing a filmmaker as they come even at the big budget level.
Films like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 aren’t talky scripts, mind you, and neither is Dune. Characters don’t speak unless they have to, because speaking demands another character’s attention, and many of Villeneuve’s protagonists are loners. They brood, they seethe, contemplate in isolation. Villeneuve’s gift is being able to telegraph that interior conflict for the audience without needing voiceover to clue us in to what our protagonists are thinking. (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are masterclasses in this regard.)
I’ve read complaints that Dune is “cold” and “emotionless” and I disagree. Epic, grandiosity, otherworldly – these are things we feel. We sure as hell feel how awesome it is to hug Jason Momoa. Imagine that, Duncan Idaho dips from the movie for a bit, then when Paul and Duncan reunite, the moment pulls on some earnest heartstrings, aided by a soulful score motif. Momoa wasn’t even gone for that long and yet, we miss him.
We may not be able to put a literal measurement to it, but we can certainly feel how massive the story is, and we feel how that planetary weight robs Paul of any free will. He’s next in line as Duke of House Atreides AND the Chosen One. Dune may seem reductive when The Matrix or Star Wars: The Last Jedi have told or subverted the chosen one trope, not to mention every YA adaptation that recycled the trope over and over. But that’s only because Dune was once the pioneer for chosen one narratives, and now it’s on the tail-end in the heyday of the modern blockbuster.
Villeneuve’s adaptation, at least, seems to be forgoing any sense of joy or triumph in fulfilling prophecies. Paul looks tortured at the prospect of being everybody’s savior. Timothee Chalamet plays Paul like an earnest Keanu Reeves as Neo; he wants to know what his role is in the world but is equally reluctant to bear that responsibility when so much is foretold of his arrival. Because he was engineered for this, and he didn’t have a say in the matter.
If the movie bears any coldness or perfunctory sense, it’s that the story is clearly spliced in half. Up until Matrix Reloaded and Kill Bill Vol. 1, I had no problem with cliffhangers. Then came stuff like Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games, now the “Part One” tag feels Young Adult-y. This of course is through no fault of Dune. But it does seem anti-climactic and kinda patronizing when Zendaya says, “this is only the beginning” at the very end. This is where other fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean (OG trilogy, nothing else) reign supreme. So much was told in one movie that you had no choice but to end with a cliffhanger sometimes because, really, this could keep on going.
Dune could’ve obviously kept going and I would’ve happily stayed in the theater, eyes burned out of my sockets. Maybe I’d feel better about the ending if Part Two was slated a year later like Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. Or, better yet, like Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions which were 6 months apart.
For all of the enormity to behold on screen, script-wise Dune does feel like chapter one of a twelve-part saga. We see the slow and gradual fall of House Atreides, the fallout as House Harkonnen capitalizes on the imperial checkmate, and that’s about the broad strokes of Part One. For all of this running around the desert, Part One doesn’t quite know how to find a resolution for the time being. Perhaps Dune did its job so well that a dork like me just wanted more. This is coming from someone who thought Blade Runner 2049 was too short, so…
I have my gripes about the Part One of it all, but I can hardly lambast Villeneuve’s latest when it feels like a movie tailor-made for me. I’m a sucker for larger-than-life cinematic experiences. What can I say? I love when things go WOOOOOOOMMM and vibrate and shit. Like Tenet last year, Dune is a full-blown sensory experience that makes the case for seeing movies at the theater in this day and age when 1.) we’re still in a pandemic, and 2.) streaming has taken over our wallets and attention spans. As far as our eyes and ears are concerned, Thanksgiving came early this year.
Frank Herbert’s novel is a gigantic bull to wrangle but Villeneuve makes this taming of the material look easy. It’s not just the cinematic quality of Dune that I adore, but the sci-fi worldbuilding too. Villeneuve does not shy away from the weirdness of Herbert’s odyssey – of using “the voice,” of spice being the most important crop in the galaxy, of spaceships looking like goddamn pyramids or insects with NO in-between. And my favorite idiosyncratic detail of all: that no matter how far we progress in time and technology, bagpipes will always be a thing. These details and how sincerely Villeneuve embraces every single one of them makes a franchise like Star Wars look like action movies with sci-fi window-dressing by comparison.
This is not Denis Villeneuve’s Star Wars or Star Trek so CUT THAT SHIT OUT. Stop fan-petitioning for him to direct Episode X or whatever. Dune is his Ben-Hur, his Lawrence of Arabia – a gloriously epic fantasy that my film-stricken soul could barely comprehend and absolutely wanted more of. Gimme Part Two.