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
Within the first few seconds of the new trailer for director Denis Villeneuve’s DUNE, it’s evident that this film is destined to be a grand scale adventure for the ages. He’s captured the pathos and gravitas of Frank Herbert’s best-seller with an intense amount of craft and care. By bottling the profound philosophies and atmospheric qualities of the original text, the auteur will give audiences multi-layered, psychological escapism.
In this future-set hero’s journey, fifteen-year-old Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) experiences a coming-of-age when his noble house, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), moves to the desert planet Arrakis – also known as Dune. They’ve been tasked to oversee production of humanity’s most coveted resource: the life-extending, awareness-heightening “spice.” However, their brutal rivals House Harkonnen are plotting to overthrow them. What’s more, Arrakis is home to an environmentalist tribe called the Fremen, who hold the secrets to the desert, the spice, and Paul’s destiny.
We learned a few fun facts during DUNE’s recent footage presentation that will not only add to your enjoyment of the feature, but deliver some knowledge into the making of your new favorite film.
Villeneuve’s film leads with the humanity of Herbert’s story. “At its core, it’s a simple, epic adventure story. But it has so many themes – that’s what makes the books so rich. I tried to keep that richness in the movies. It touches many elements. It’s about fate and destiny. Humans, we need to earn our destiny in order to change the world. The movies are a call for action for us to change things, specifically for the youth.”
Villeneuve decided early on to break Herbert’s source material into two films. It was one of his conditions to make the movie. He explained, “I had two conditions: I could not make one movie out of this book. The story is so rich and complex that in order to be faithful to the book, I had to make at least two movies. The movie itself has its own arc. It sustains itself as one journey, but to tell the story, it needed two movies.”
Villeneuve didn’t want to make “JAWS in a swimming pool.” His second condition was to utilize as many physical sets as possible, which meant shooting in the real desert of Jordan. He said, “I believe it has an impact on inspiration. The other condition I had was I wanted to shoot in the real desert. This isn’t like shooting JAWS in a swimming pool. You make a movie called DUNE and we needed to be inspired by the infinity and impact of those landscapes. DUNE is about the eco-system and biosphere and I needed to be as close to nature as possible.”
Filming on real, tactile sets felt “spiritual” to Chalamet and gave Josh Brolin a “behavioral blackout.” Chalamet elucidated, “When you’re shooting in the desert in Jordan, the spirituality of the location, you feel the environment. I think I did two scenes on a green screen. Besides that, everything else was practical.” Brolin thought that being steeped in these environments helped hammer home the film’s themes. “There’s something about being on the set, because we were in the elements the whole time, living through Herbert’s book and Denis’ imagination, there was something that was like a behavioral blackout. This [is] a special project in reminding us what intention is, what humanity is and the things that get in the way of connecting and communal bliss.”
The expansiveness of the locales taught Rebecca Ferguson to be egoless. She said, “The desert is so big. It’s basically Mother Nature engulfing you and going, ‘You mean nothing.’ It takes away the ego.”
Oscar Isaac’s cockpit got sweaty. Since it was sitting in the sunlight on set, his character’stransportation vehicle became stifling because of the desert heat.“The cockpit of the Ornithopter, when being hit with direct sun, became a magnifying glass.”
It was Chalamet’s “rock star charisma” that got him cast. Chalamet has proven himself a major talent at a young age and with that the auteur felt there was an undeniable connection between Paul Atreides and the affable actor. Said Villeneuve, “There’s a deep intelligence in [his] eyes and [he’s got] an old soul. At the same time, he looks so young on camera. He’s insanely charismatic – a movie star charisma that’s very rare. We have to remember that Paul Atreides will lead a world later and I needed that kind of rock star charisma.”
Science-fiction and fantasy elements are in the background of Villeneuve’s adaptation. Instead, the human struggle is in the foreground. He clarified, “I really focus on the character’s journey and the epicness of the human journey. That’s what makes DUNE so unique. The technological elements are there in the background. It’s like an homage to the human condition. We strip humanity from all the machines. At the very core, it’s a tragedy about the family going into a new environment. It’s a movie about the capacity of adaptation in order to survive in new environments without the help of any tools.”
There are lots of metaphors in DUNE. Chalamet alluded to a few of the connections saying, “There’s a lot of contemporary metaphors you can make with social media, or the technology of the times. But we are in that antithesis of that philosophy in DUNE, in some way, where you have a cast of characters in families in waring houses that are absent of technology and absent of mind, or rate of mind, or frame rate that’s glued to your phone.”
Duke Leto Atreides is noble and ethical, but also human. Oscar Isaac thought of him as the epitome of what a father should be. “House Atreides is the beacon of ethics and higher consciousness which is what’s been the struggle since this technological dystopian future they’ve made their way out of. He’s human and doomed the way humans are. He’s under incredible pressure to save his family, save this House and to adapt to a new existential threat, which is moving to a strange planet. [He’s] able to see it could be a trap and yet trying to live up to bigger ideals, which is sensitivity, empathy, love and order and show that to his son that the conflict is to not fall into paranoia and despair, but to try to find the advantage and use it. Ultimately, this is about the clash of cultures and tribes and vast cultural history of humanity.”
Much of DUNE’s story is driven by Lady Jessica. Chalamet explained, “There’s no DUNE without Lady Jessica. She ignores the orders of the Bene Gesserit to have a girl and she has a boy instead. That’s one of the triggering effects of DUNE. Rebecca Ferguson brought intensity and an autonomy – a contemporary urgency – to the role that’s very present in the book.” Isaac concurred, “It’s a long game that’s being played over millennia and she’s part of that. She understands there’s a much great mission to accomplish but also loves her family and wants to protect them in any way she can.” Ferguson was quick to applaud Denis for recognizing this aspect in Herbert’s novel. “He highlighted this. Her decisions basically create fracture and disrupts everything.”
The filmmakers gender swapped Liet-Kynes in casting the role. Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays Liet-Kynes, a male character in Herbert’s novel.“First and foremost, Denis was adamant that we just concentrate on what Kynes represents and thematically the sense of him connecting all the dots. He connects the Harkonnens. He connects the House of Atredies. He connects the fremen, planet Arakkis, the sandworms. This is somebody who understands these worlds and moves in between each and every one, seemingly with one agenda. It was about concentrating on the essence of this person – not the fact that this person was a man. [We only] much later talked about that it was a man. I think what’s important is what Kynes stands for.”
The politics in DUNE have been simplified. The political dynamics and construct between House Atreides and House Harkonnen can get a little cumbersome so Villeneuve better streamlined that aspect. “My secret weapon on that was Stellan Skarsgård. The way we designed the Baron, after five seconds on screen, [you’ll] understand his position on Atreides and the difference of moral values of Atreides and Harkonnens. I used the power of cinema to bring that tension to life.”
Jason Momoa was impressed by his fight choreography. As the frontline for the Atreides’, Duncan Idaho has been trained to be the “the greatest fighter in the f*ckin’ world,” said Momoa. Even though he’s done his fair share of action sequences in GAME OF THRONES and AQUAMAN, he couldn’t help but marvel at how they turned out here. “Watching some of the moves that I would do and going behind the camera and seeing Greig’s [Fraser, DP] eye with Denis, I’ve never seen something so beautiful in a fight scene.”
Javier Bardem found his fremen stillsuit to be surprisingly comfortable. He plays Stilgar, the head chief of the fremen, the people who live deep in the desert of Arrakis (also known as Dune). Since they’re an environmentally conscious culture, they sport specially designed suits that both protect them from the heat, but also recycle all bodily liquids. Bardem said he was impressed by the costume design of these suits when it came to feeling comfortable in the extreme, high temperatures of the desert. “They were built amazingly well. They looked like they were so heavy and you couldn’t walk. But once you’re in them, you’re free to move and there was kind of a cool fresh air, breeze, inside the suit going in. I thought it was going to be more miserable.”
Josh Brolin plays the baliset in the movie. Brolin, who plays a musician and Paul’s protector, said of his learning, “It’s described in the book as having many strings. Me, being an amateur musician, when it was brought to the set, it was immediately grabbed out of my hands by Oscar Isaac and played incredibly – don’t forget [he was in] INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS – by him, which threw me into this awful, vulnerable state. And when we did the playing and the singing, Denis threw that on me the night before.”
The phrase “fear is the mind-killer” took on new resonance for Chalamet. He explained what it means succinctly. “It’s the idea that when the world and circumstance is so overwhelming that to try to attack the a primal reaction – the anxiety and fear – with action and words, it does you no good. If you can center that fear, you can center your eye through that fear, there’s a middle ground – a zen-like calmness, that helps you through the storm.”
DUNE arrives at the perfect moment in time. While Herbert’s novel has been around for decades and has inspired other filmmakers, its thematic resilience is what makes it still feel timely and urgent. Villeneuve said, “It’s a call for change and a movie about the capacity of adaptation. There’s a lot of change happening in the world with climate change. We need to change our ways of living and ways of dealing with nature and that takes a lot of courage and ethics. DUNE is a call for that. It has its roots in all this.”
Unless things change, you’ll get that spice when DUNE opens on December 18, 2020.