“In a very dramatic way, this is a coming-of-age story,” Zendaya (“Spider-Man: Far From Home”) noted in a virtual college roundtable with The Michigan Daily. “(Dune is) a bigger metaphor for something we’ve all kind of experienced … what it’s like to feel all these pressures and these ideas of the things you should be or might have to be for other people.”
“Dune,” Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, set the stage for the next 55 years of science fiction and is widely regarded as the source material for all kinds of well-known science fiction tropes. The story follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”) through a journey of self-discovery mired in tragedies and power grabs, classic concepts that drive the story’s ability to connect with people over five decades after its original publication.
“Dune” opens with the Atreides family getting ready to move from their homeworld of Caladan to Arrakis, the infamous desert planet known for its main export, “spice,” and a constant need for water. The familiar themes of deceit and betrayal are peppered throughout the film, giving flair to a timeless story that explores what it means to exist in a world unlike anything you’ve ever known before.
Not all aspects of “Dune” are that universal, however. Herbert’s story was at the forefront of the environmentalist movement — one of the first major publications advocating for better treatment of the environment came out in 1962. In 1965, its heavy focus on the environment and how it affected the lives of the characters made “Dune” a revolutionary story both within and beyond the science fiction genre. While appreciation for nature and a call to action to protect it was once controversial, an environmentalist attitude was taught to many of us today at a young age.
This difference in how we view ourselves in relation to the environment offers a challenge to Denis Villeneuve and his new adaptation of “Dune.” Much of his audience, while maybe not familiar with “Dune” itself, is intimately familiar with arguably the most important message Frank Herbert was trying to communicate. No longer are we at the cusp of an environmental revolution: We’re tired of being told of the threat of climate change while some major politicians openly disregard our future, of the president going back on promises he made during the campaign, of the fact that there’s not much we can really do about it.
Villeneuve recognizes this fact from the beginning. “Dune” doesn’t try to convince us of something we know all too well. Instead, he allows the film to marvel at the sheer beauty of an environment that is unrelenting, unwilling to be turned into humanity’s plaything. With its wide expanses of nature — whether it’s the cliffs of Caladan, the black abyss of space or the dunes of Arrakis — this film is an ode to the world we inhabit. What’s more, many of the places we see in “Dune” are naturally occurring environments on Earth — the cast spent time in Norway, Hungary, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Austria. As Timothée Chalamet noted in the roundtable, only a handful of scenes (he specifies two, maybe) were shot with a green screen.
One of which was probably when Paul comes face-to-face with a sandworm (though I’m only guessing). He and his mother have been trekking through the desert, and their fatigue is evident in their bid to find safety on a rock formation. Though Paul makes it to the rocks, there is a moment of stillness where “Dune” presents to us the Shai-Hulud, the great maker, the reason spice exists on Arrakis. In this moment, we see a tension between living things: one which has learned to live in harmony with its world, creating spice, tunneling in the sand and minding its own business, and another who only knows how to take from the places it visits. The silence that accompanies Paul encountering a worm for the first time is also a world-building move for Villeneuve. He provides the audience with a complete understanding of the sheer power these creatures possess.
Beyond these visual accomplishments, “Dune” showcases the director’s storytelling abilities, setting his take on the classic saga apart from its past iterations. His focus on what could be described as ‘the interesting parts of the book,’ partially by the strategic decision to make Paul more clueless than he has been historically, takes away much of the subtle political subterfuge that characterizes the original novel. He creates flexibility for himself and his actors to tell the story of “Dune” within the visual context on which filmmaking depends. Rather than trying to juggle maintaining accuracy to the novel with good filmmaking, Villeneuve chooses to focus on just one of these tasks. He takes the subtleties of Herbert’s original work and amplifies these centuries-old emotions to the point where your heart can do nothing else other than break for the boy who lost everything, including himself, in the desert.
This intensification of the feelings spurred on by watching an entire empire vanquished in one night and seeing Paul lose so much to Arrakis while having to continue on with his destiny as if nothing happened explains why “Dune” is thought to have the potential for widespread, multigenerational popularity. The story, at its core, is about a boy walking through the desert with his mom, wondering, “Who am I?” — a feeling that I find myself encountering in increasing frequency the closer I find myself to graduating. Paul and I have each been forced to evaluate what we want from the world around us, though he seems to know what to do while I have little idea of what I want for dinner each night.
While I may have no vision for my own future, Villeneuve clearly does for “Dune,” a fact that is felt throughout the film. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Villeneuve describes this new take on “Dune” as a “love letter to the big screen.” But, after over a year away from theaters due to the pandemic, Villeneuve’s letter feels less like a written statement and more like a grand declaration from the rooftops. And in listening to Chalamet talk about his excitement to work on a film that “doesn’t lose any dramatic integrity, doesn’t lose any ambition,” it becomes easy to get caught up in the hopes and dreams of these artists. They may have gone out in the evening, continuing to promote their movie while I stayed home to study for Biology 305, but that doesn’t change the fact that we all see ourselves in Paul, Chani and even Duke Leto as he morosely (yet matter-of-factly) discusses his impending doom with his son.
Chalamet and Zendaya said it best: “In Denis we trust.” Villeneuve’s ability to maintain the grandeur that is “Dune” and its decades-long history without losing his own personal connection to the story allows for a level of accessibility we haven’t seen yet from “Dune.” His visual and storytelling skills make it so that his audience can pick and choose what they’re excited for, whether that’s 155 minutes of Timothée Chalamet swinging swords and staring moodily at a screen (sometimes having spice-induced visions of Zendaya) or because “Dune” was a pillar of their childhood. He has created the film many were hoping for back in the ’80s, but one with a 21st-century sensibility, and “Dune” is all the better for it.
Daily Arts Writer Emma Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.