Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Denis Villeneuve’s DUNE is assuredly going to make audiences’ jaws drop. It’s a true vision of sound and scale. From the footage we were invited to see a few days ago – which included the first 10 minutes of the film, one pivotal, action-packed, character-forward sequence, an interview segment with composer Hans Zimmer and the latest trailer (dropping online globally on July 22) – the large scope of this expansive project is clear. This fully cinematic, immersive and enveloping sensory experience benefits from its preferred IMAX format.
We wanted to examine what we gleaned from our exclusive look at the sci-fi actioner, which some of the lucky public around the world will get to see during an event taking place on July 21 and 22.
Warning: This should go without saying, but if you’d like to remain as clear as possible before seeing DUNE in its entirety, exercise common sense and stop reading.
Setting the Story
As previously reported, Villeneuve has chosen to split Frank Herbert’s book into two films. The title card for this reads, “Dune, Part 1.” It interestingly opens on Chani (Zendaya) narrating, giving the Fremen perspective of what’s been happening on her home planet, Arrakis – a.k.a. Dune. Her expository dialogue is lean and clean – easily digestible for newbies and doesn’t waste any time for those who are already familiar with the world. Her indigenous environmentalist tribe has been under attack by the cruel troops of House Harkonnen, who control the planet and harvest its precious natural resource, spice, for their personal and monetary gains. Spice is a valuable commodity known for its health benefits, but it’s also necessary for interstellar travel. The Fremen have launched countless rebel attacks, which has led to war and death. Until, one day, the Harkonnen up and leave without warning. Now the Fremen await the arrival of another set of oppressors.
Sure enough, there comes word that the Imperial Emperor has chosen House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), as the new stewards of the desolate desert planet of Arrakis, moving from their own perfect planet of Caladan. At the ceremony, they welcome Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) and seal the deal. Duke Leto seems a little hesitant to do so, perhaps sensing the Emperor is up to something, but he presses his signet ring into the wax anyways.
Meanwhile, the nobles’ teenage son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), has been having visions of Chani, as a blurred figure, in his dreams. He’s also begun training to use the “voice,” a mind-trick that convinces others to do his bidding (similar to the persuasive power of a STAR WARS Jedi). At the breakfast table, his mother asks him to use the voice to give him a glass of water. As she slides it over to him, she admits it only half worked on her. He’s also learning about his new home of Arrakis – like the dangerous, gigantic sandworms, the harsh conditions on the planet, the Fremen’s clothing, and that long-term exposure to spice makes people’s eyes turn blue.
The Cast, Their Characters and Their Character’s Character
While we didn’t see a lot from House Harkonnen outside of brief glimpses of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), Glossu ‘Beast’ Rabban (Dave Bautista) and Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian), we got a strong sense of those in House Atreides. Lady Jessica is strong-willed, smart and caring. Paul is inquisitive and introspective. Duke Leto is a complex leader; he’s a hero bound by honor and duty, but also mindful and reticent to just simply follow orders.
The characters’ character really comes through in the Spice Harvester sequence, which comes a little later in the film, after they’ve inhabited Arrakis. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is piloting an Ornithopter (a dragonfly-esque helicopter) with Duke Leto, Paul and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), giving them an overview on how they harvest the spice and avoid the threatening sandworms, who are attracted to loud, rhythmic noise. Their method is to harvest right up until seconds before worms arrive, sending in a recovery craft to dock with the “crawler” vehicle and pull them out of harm’s way. Naturally, they witness one going wrong and, in true form, everyone rises to the challenge, which makes for an intense scene.
Gurney, Duke Leto’s right-hand man, rescues Paul after he’s beckoned by a siren call of the land, something he’s growing more and more compelled by. As the pair cling to the Ornithopter as it lifts off, Liet-Kynes says a sacred prayer after the crawler is swallowed whole by the sandworm emerging from the desert’s depths. Duke Leto is now seemingly marked by what he witnessed.
Wardrobe isn’t solely an aesthetic feature. It’s also one rooted in the narrative and character. They explain the Fremen wardrobe as having a functional design, protecting them from Arrakis’ sandstorms that cut through regular clothing. The clothing throughout also has a tangible textural feel. On Caladan, during the ceremony, we see that Lady Jessica’s ethereal gray-blue gown has the same pattern as Gaius Helen Mohiam’s, indicating the Bene Gesserit tie between the two characters.
The Production Design
The environment of a convincing film set can enrich and augment the work of an actor. This definitely comes across in Villeneuve’s collaboration with production designer Patrice Vermette. These modern, chic sets not only look aesthetically pleasing and authentic to the fictional world being created, they appear palpably massive, leading to the audience’s immersion in the DUNE universe. Despite it being science-fiction, there’s a strong sense of grounding realism, from Chalamet, Brolin, Isaac, Duncan-Brewster and Ferguson interacting with these gargantuan set pieces, to their reactions to them as well.
Hans Zimmer’s Score
The in-demand composer wanted to move away from the trumpets and symphonic arrangements that have frequently populated sci-fi films in the past. Rather, he wanted to embrace a more innovative sound – one that brought the cinematic soundscape into the future. In order to do that, he set about stripping his compositions down, utilizing the most basic component, the human voice, and branching out from there. You can definitely feel the weight and emotional pull of his pieces when married to Villeneuve’s vision, especially in the rescue mission/ worm appearance sequence on Arrakis. Zimmer’s score is percussive, mimicking a ticking clock that’s working against the team as they rescue the sparse crew aboard the spice harvesting crawler vehicle. Here, he merges the symphonic with the synthetic, flirting with enchanting feminine vocals that call out to Paul like a siren song – voices he hears and engages with.
In the interview between the Oscar and Grammy-winning composer and Villeneuve, Zimmer said he felt creative symbiosis with the auteur. It was a shared passion to bring this material alive. “Our aesthetic was comparable.” Character themes and entrancing instrumentations are certainly evident, but Zimmer felt “the power and the richness of the female characters” needed to be at the forefront of DUNE’s score. Most importantly, he wanted to create an environment “to invite the audience to have their own experience.”
The New Trailer
The trailer begins on a cut down version of Chani’s narration setting up the world of Dune. We also see the cruelty enacted by the Harkonnen on the Fremen. Paul confesses to Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) that he’s seeing visions in his dreams. But the highlight is the little bit of levity where Duncan jokes around with Paul about putting on muscle. It’s also notable that Paul’s eyes glow blue, thus indicating he’s spending more time with the Fremen, exposed to the spice.
DUNE opens in theaters (seriously see this thing in IMAX!) on October 22.