“It is pure cinema,” actor Josh Brolin says while describing the look of Denis Villeneuve’s long-anticipated Dune adaptation. “There’s an aesthetic to this film that’s just different.”
When a performer talks so glowingly about a movie they’re appearing in, especially during a prerecorded sizzle which kicks off an extended preview of said blockbuster, journalists might assume they’re indulging in a bit of hyperbole. Yet when paired with more than 15 minutes of Dune footage, including the upcoming epic’s opening sequences, that bit of high praise rings surprisingly true.
Presented in breathtaking digital IMAX—as seemingly all of the film’s desert sequences are shot in—our initial brush with Dune’s ambitions is stunning. Arguably not since Lawrence of Arabia have desert landscapes been filmed with such romance and awe-inducing ambition. At a glance, the sci-fi adventure’s opening on sandy vistas echoes Star Wars, yes, but Villeneuve appears to be reaching for something grander and more majestic in his artfulness. Could the film be every bit as sweeping as Frank Herbert’s influential (and allegedly unfilmable) novel, even as it makes tweaks to the source material?
It seems possible.
Arrakis and the Fremen
Beginning with a crash course in the brutal realpolitik of the planet Arrakis—the lone rock in the known universe to produce a highly coveted narcotic called “spice melange”—the early moments of Dune are not presented from the perspectives of either House Atreides or House Harkonnen (the ostensible good guys and villains of the Dune saga). Rather we view both through the gaze of Arrakis native Chani (Zendaya).
Zendaya narrates the opening scene by saying, “My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low. Rolling over the sands, you can see the spice in the air.” She then pauses as darkness descends on the screen. “At nightfall the spice harvesters land.”
Across brutally real sand swept landscapes, we see digital red spice floating in the air. The material is a byproduct of Arrakis’ unique desert ecosystem, and it produces hallucinogenic experiences that extend a user’s lifespan. But as helpfully explained by the Dune movie in the first few minutes, the spice also allows navigators of the Spacing Guild to enter the drug-fueled headspace necessary to “find safe paths between the stars.” Without spice, interstellar travel is impossible. It is therefore the most valuable substance in the galaxy.
Hence the rest of Chani’s narration about the outsiders who bring their clanking metallic machines out at night.
“They ravage our lands in front of our eyes,” Zendaya says. “Their cruelty to our people is more than I can stand.” The ravagers in question are in the employ of House Harkonnen, an obscenely rich family situated at the top of an intergalactic feudal system. As filmed by Villeneuve in their hovering dragonfly-like aircraft and in tight fascistic formations when armed for battle and transportation, Harkonnen forces look like brown shirt variations on Stormtroopers in Star Wars. This is of course by design. After all, Herbert’s Dune was a major influence on George Lucas (and just about every space opera written since 1965).
And yet, as framed in the 2021 film, there is something newly subversive about the message. Fans of the novel will note that much of the book is framed from the vantage of Princess Irulan, the daughter of the Padishah Emperor, who many years later is looking back at this story as a significant sea change in the dynamics between the universe’s patrician class. In Dune ’21, however, our narrator is one of the Fremen of the Arrakeen desert, nomads who are stepped on by the elite of every stripe. Hence images of Chani and other Fremen shooting at, and blowing up, Harkonnens’ spice harvesters.
The implications of Arrakis being an allegorical stand-in for the Middle East, and the spice representing the oil that great powers will kill over even in the face of political destabilization, is more pronounced here than even in the novel. As star Timothée Chalamet also said during our presentation, “[Dune] really is a story of civilization. It is about planet Earth and the clash of cultures.”
Perhaps that’s why the soldiers of House Atreides, the heroes of the film, also look faintly like Stormtroopers, both from history and Star Wars. Or as Chani says of them in Dune, “Who will our next oppressors be?”
Much of the rest of the opening is about introducing us to Paul Atreides (Chalamet) and life on his home planet of Caladan, which in Dune appears luscious and green but perpetually damp and overcast—so a little bit like Villeneuve’s native Canada. It’s there we learn Paul is having prophetic dreams about Chani and the Fremen people his father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), has been tasked with ruling over in the Harkonnens’ absence—the Emperor has ordered House Harkonnen to vacate planet Arrakis.
With a visual aesthetic which appears to mirror both western and eastern noble houses on Earth, the Atreides live in splendor on Caladan. Fans of the novel will also be happy to hear a portrait of the past duke and a statue of a certain bull are present. Despite such opulence, teenage Paul is already being trained for leadership, even over the breakfast table by his mother, the Lady Jessica (a superbly aloof Rebecca Ferguson).
Lady Jessica, the Bene Gesserit, and “The Voice”
The scene is also our first introduction of Lady Jessica’s order the Bene Gesserit. Something of a cross between Jedi and a coven of intergalactic witches, the Bene Gesserit’s powers are made explicit much earlier on screen than on the page, with Jessica urging Paul to practice “the Voice” and command her to give him her water glass.
After several attempts, Paul almost finds the proper Bene Gesserit inflection. For a moment, it sounds like Chalamet’s voice has been stretched into a needle across the audio track—or the noise made by a violin string pulled too tight—and overlaid with Ferguson’s own vocals. Functionally, his command for Jessica to hand him the glass is the same “Jedi Mind Trick” we’ve come to know fondly from countless Star Wars movies, but in Dune it feels more ominous and witchy.
Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto
If the scene is our introduction to one side of Paul’s family tree, we soon meet the other via Oscar Isaac’s proud Duke Leto. Standing before legions of his black uniformed warriors on another gray day, he along with Paul, Jessica, and aides Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) await the arrival of a royal imperium ship, which travels all the way to Caladan to seal a foregone formality: House Atreides will take over control of spice production on Arrakis from the shady House Harkonnen.
“We are House Atreides,” Isaac roars. “There is no call we do not answer, there is no faith that we betray! The Emperor asks us to bring peace to Arrakis! House Atreides accepts!” His men then chant the “Atreides!” name like it’s their religion. The sequence is somber but strangely grand in its bleakness and sense of dutiful resignation by the Duke.
Hans Zimmer and the Music of Dune
As the music swells, an unsettling alien-sounding affectation emerges in the score. Hans Zimmer, who also participated in our Dune preview, similarly hinted at the otherworldly music he’s conjured here.
“I don’t really want to call Dune a science fiction movie,” Zimmer said, “but nonetheless whenever I saw a movie about empires far, far away, other planets, et cetera, I always heard trumpets and french horns, and cellos playing. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, they’re all these amazing civilizations in different galaxies in different times, and they have the same instruments as we do.’ So I thought it’d be interesting to go and invent our own instruments.”
With sounds that appear to meld the buzzing synths of electronic-sounding harmonicas and the vocal wails of traditional Middle Eastern music, Dune sounds decidedly unlike other Hollywood sci-fi spectacles.
… And it again somehow looks original, too. This is confirmed by every moment we’ve seen of Dune set in the deep desert, including one of the major scenes from the movie’s first act. It’s already been teased in trailers: The moment where Paul and Leto first lay eyes on one of the massive sandworms that prowl Arrakis’ deserts.
In the scene, Leto and Paul are taking their first survey of the deep desert, alongside Freman leader Dr. Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). To many it appears like a wasteland, yet for Paul it looks strangely inviting.
It’s Leto who first spots the sandworm from their aircraft. They’re flying above a newly Atreides-acquired spice harvester, which is now a sitting duck for the enormous worm. So Leto makes the courageous call to try and rescue the entire crew of spice harvesters by rushing them onto his own aircrafts.
Yet as Paul exits the back of the ship to help lead spice harvesters out of harm’s way, his feet touch sand for the first time and his nostrils finally inhale spice. Suddenly, he’s lost in reveries. Again he dreams of Chani and a future among the dunes. But as he falls to his knees the worm grows ever closer, with its mouth appearing to be miles in diameter as it closes around the very land the Atreides aircraft and harvester are resting on. If you’ve seen the first trailer, you know how this impressive sequence ends.
But as experienced on an IMAX screen, it appears much like the sandworm itself: gargantuan, godlike, and, yes, like a piece of cinema that in spite of its familiar source material seems removed from anything we’ve ever seen at a movie theater. Whether or not Dune ultimately handles the weight of its sizable ambitions, one thing is already certain: this isn’t a spectacle to be experienced from your couch.
Dune opens in theaters and on HBO Max on Oct. 22.