TIFF 2021 | Dune (Denis Villeneuve, US/Hungary)

By Meg Shields

In retrospect, Denis Villeneuve’s career has always been hurtling toward Dune, given its fateful melange of unadaptable sci-fi (Arrival), closely guarded cult objects (Blade Runner 2049), and morally fraught political sandstorms (Sicario). Adapting the first half of Frank Herbert’s monumental sci-fi novel, Dune begins with an uneasy exchange of power: the transfer of the planet Arrakis from House Harkonnen to House Atreides. As the sole source of the precious resource known as “spice,” Arrakis is both a financial opportunity and a kiss of death. But for the family’s young heir, Paul, the planet marks the kindling of a great and terrible purpose.

Immense in both scale and ambition, Dune sees Villeneuve’s career-long talent for working alongside formidable technicians (including cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette) pay off in spades. Among the star-studded cast, Timotheé Chalamet (as Paul) and Rebecca Ferguson (as Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica) turn in especially excellent, humanizing performances, while Stellan Skargård effortlessly gobbles down his scenes as the bloated, oiled-up Baron Harkonnen. 

By splitting the narrative of Herbert’s novel in half, Dune has elected to deny viewers narrative satisfaction in a bid to will an as yet non-greenlit sequel into existence. This bifurcation leaves several knottier ideas uncompleted, which is troubling given Villeneuve’s choice to lean into settler-colonial themes. Those familiar with the original text will appreciate the fat Villeneuve has elected to trim, but even with Herbert’s mystical space opera (mostly) tamed, it turns out that not even Villeneuve’s austerity can relieve Dune of its unshakable weirdness. As it always has and always will, Dune will enrapture some and repel others. 

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