Did Dune Live Up to the Hype?
The latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 science fiction novel Dune is one of 2021’s best films. Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) creates a rousing drama in a grand universe complemented by stunning visuals and state-of-the-art special effects. It’s a much more cerebral film than the current Marvel fare and reminds us of the often cruel history of humankind.
Set in the distant future, it tells the story of young Paul (Timothée Chalamet), heir to House of Atreides, as he joins his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) to the desert planet of Arrakis to relieve Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) as the steward. The planet is important for the Imperium, as it is the only source for spice, the most desirable resource 20,000 years into the future.
Spice is a sacramental psychedelic with healing properties sacred to the Fremen, natives of Arrakis who have adapted to the harsh environment. Not to mention spice is what makes interstellar travel possible for the Spacing Guild. The Duke hopes to harvest the spice to enrich his realm and build an alliance with the Fremen, who have been oppressed and exploited by outsiders since before our story begins.
Paul has unsettling dreams of the Fremen and of life on Arrakis. Trained by his mother to harness special abilities, his visions cause speculation among the Bene Gesserit, a supernatural sisterhood to which his mother belongs. His visions become more vivid leading him to believe he may be a messianic figure. His exposure to the spice further awakens his power, and he must rise to protect House Atreides from the hostile desert and those plotting to take control of the spice trade.
The scale of Dune is sprawling, taking audiences from one part of the cosmos to the other. There isn’t another fictional universe quite like the one Villeneuve has created. From the costumes and sets, to the ships and sandworms, the world created is quite odd. Furthermore, Hans Zimmer’s hypnotic, exotic score adds to the film’s truly alien feel.
The script, co-written by Villeneuve, Oscar-winner Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), and Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) keeping things mysterious, adapts the first portion of the intricate novel without bogging down the story with heaps of exposition. Instead, the story unfolds mostly through the point-of-view of Paul as he maneuvers through the political intrigue he finds himself in on Arrakis. One can assume that the finer points of Dune will be elaborated upon in the next film.
Dune is also a story about how the quest for power can be a corrupting force. Duke Leto, consumed by his desire to bring his House riches, power, and glory, leaves behind their home planet and risks it all, knowing the political and environmental risks can cause them great danger. While he may look at himself as a reformer, Leto would be no different from the Harkonnens in exploiting the Fremen and their planet.
Dune succeeds as a compelling drama because it seems to find its inspiration from the war, coercion, and exploitation at the hands of oligarchs through the ages. The story’s most obvious allusion is to the European powers who sent forth agents to find spices but also conquered lands and slaughtered natives. We are reminded of how wealth was amassed before free markets brought even greater freedom and prosperity through peaceful cooperation and voluntary transactions.
Like The Lord of the Rings films before it, Maestro Villeneuve’s Dune has renewed interest in Herbert’s novels and its previous adaptations and introduced its wondrous universe to new audiences. Anticipation will certainly build for Dune: Part Two as fans become more acquainted. The film succeeds in blasting us off into a new universe and we can help but want more.