Despite the onset of a global pandemic and tensions between director Denis Villeneuve and HBO Max, Dunehas finally hit TV screens and theaters across America. Dune has long been considered a great in the sci-fi literary canon, and even though there have been multiple adaptations -- whether they be 1980s film, real time strategy game, or TV mini series -- few have been able to capture the sense of scope put forward in Frank Herbert’s text. Now, Villeneuve sets out to put his own mark on the classic story.
Strapped for time and unable to go to a theater, I met the movie half way by seeking out a nice big 4K TV a friend had to watch the movie on, though according to Villeneuve, this is tantamount to driving a speedboat in a bathtub. The overall style of the film is one of grandeur, which isn’t necessarily ostentatious. Villeneuve insists that the theatrical experience is THE way to watch Dune, and he’s not entirely wrong -- even on a big TV I felt like something was missing. But that said, if you’re not comfortable going out to a theater these days I 1000% get you.
In order to get some additional insight into the style of the film, I watched the Dune: Future Fashion segment on HBO Max, which is mostly a fluff piece at just shy of three minutes, but it did illuminate some aspects of the production design. Harkonnen armor is largely based on ants and other insects, while the Bene Gesserit were designed to invoke medieval nuns. And even though artist and costume designer Eiko Ishioka passed away in 2012, I still felt her influence throughout Dune (though this might be a side effect of recently re-watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The costume designs by Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan don’t share Ishioka’s same flair for the flamboyant, but Lady Jessica’s ornate jewelry and flowing gown, plus the way Baron Harkonnen’s costume unfurls as he floats, felt particularly evocative of Ishioka’s work on The Cell and The Fall. Paul and Duke Let’s official uniforms are regal if a bit straightforward, The Fremen Stillsuits maintain the Gray’s Anatomy style curvature and muscle structure, making them feel like an iteration of the David Lynch suits, though the Arakeen citizenry get to wear pretty standard, vaguely Middle Eastern clothing you’d see in most any costume department.
One area where the costume design fell short was with the Saurdakar. The story builds them up as The Emperor’s Hand, the most fearsome of fearsome warriors. On the page your imagination can really play with the idea of fanatical shock-troopers scouring the depths of space, and you get glimpses of that extremity on their home planet, but once we see them in action they look like stock blockbuster movie bad guys with humdrum armor that you’ve probably seen on Art Station already. The same goes for the battle suits on Paul and the Fremen that we see in one of Paul’s premonitions. They look a little too Marvel movie-ish, and not something truly alien.
Ecology is a main theme throughout Dune the novel, but this being an adaptation, focus is primarily on Paul’s journey, though Villeneuve still manages to give each planet a grandiose presence. Caladan (shot in Stadlandet, Norway) is surrounded by natural beauty, with green grass, and deep waters, where official ceremony is held in the open air in view of the mountains, while the royal graveyard is part of the hillside itself, reinforcing the ties between the Atredes and their home world. Meanwhile the Harkonnen planet, Giedi Prime, shows no natural beauty at all and is a sprawl of obsidian structures, with a domineering central dome that feels reminiscent of HR Giger’s early concept art for the aborted Jodorowsky Dune. We only see Giedi Prime in the context of Harkonnen power structure and literal structures. As for Arrakis, we see how massive the desert is in scope, emphasizing how small, how fragile, the people are that populate it’s harsh world. Though the trade off there is that we don’t see much of the city of Arrakeen, or its people. Sci-fi cinema has been inundated with the belief that more is better as far as visuals go. As reviled as George Lucas’ prequel trilogy was, blockbuster movies feel the need to imitate the need to have every shot populated by a million characters, buildings, gee-gaws, and CG props. While some scenes feel sparse, Villeneuve captures a sense of scale with his worlds, while also focusing on what are the essentials, rather than overloading every shot. This can be particularly seen with the shots of the Sandworms, which are mostly shown from a distance and only up close for one scene. The face of the sandworm now has thousands of delicate teeth reminiscent of baleen whales, rather than the trap-jaw of some earlier interpretations.
Dune isn’t filled to the brim with mechanical design, but what you do see in the film simultaneously feels old and futuristic at the same time. The holographic projector Paul uses for his lessons looks like a miniaturized slide projector from the 1970s, and the spaceships seen throughout the film dispose of any tacti-cool aesthetic, opting to appear like monolithic structures, cumbersome and bulky, yet that glide through the air and opt for stone-like textures, rather than sleek chrome replete with blinking lights. The Ornithopters also present an interesting mix of sci-fi future tech along with more mechanical dials and readouts, the Hunter-Seeker drones look like clockwork insects, and the Fremen compass maintains the mechanical rather than digital look and feel of the world.
With a sequel now on the way set for an October 2023 release, we can look forward to seeing how Villeneuve realizes the Fremen sietches, and Paul’s rival, Feyd Rautha, and the escalating conflict between the Harkonnen and the Atreides.