By Jordan O’Brien
When Brian Herbert announced that Denis Villeneuve would be directing the latest adaptation of his father’s famous novel, “Dune,” critics appeared to greet the news with restrained excitement. Andrew Liptak from The Verge applauded the French-Canadian director’s impressive credentials, but cautioned fans not to be too enthusiastic.
“There’s no guarantee that we’ll ever actually see a Villeneuve adaptation of Dune,” he said back in February 2017. “Filmmakers have been working on a reboot of the series for years without results.”
Liptak and others were right to sound off a warning: Dune’s cinematic journey is fraught with disappointment. The project has failed to get off the ground multiple times, including, most famously, when Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to direct the project (the experience was compelling enough to be made into a documentary feature in 2014).
Even David Lynch, the acclaimed director who matches—if not exceeds—Villeneuve’s technical virtuosity, could not save the dense property. Released in 1984, the now-cult film made just $31 million of its $40 million budget back, and is almost universally regarded as an artistic failure. It is the only cinematic version of Frank Herbert’s groundbreaking sci-fi novel that fans have to relish.
The 1965 work, which clearly inspired George Lucas’ original Star Wars, follows Paul Atreides, the son of a royal family embroiled in a galactic conflict. While rival houses Atreides and Harkonnen compete for influence under an emperor’s callous rule, Paul trains to fulfill an ancient prophecy assumed by a mystic cult. Believed to possess messianic precociousness, Paul straddles the line between heir to the Atreides throne and myth incarnate. But on the eve before his house is forced to leave their idyllic planet for a desert hellscape known as Arrakis (or “Dune”), a disaster occurs. Betrayal leads to tragedy, and Paul is left isolated on Dune, compelled to avenge his house and realize his destiny.
It’s Game of Thrones meets Star Wars—a feudal sci-fi story fit to revisit in the age of franchise cinema.
In the months and years since the Villeneuve announcement, the cautionary warnings have faded. With each new revelation about the movie—its star-studded cast, its supremely talented crew and rumors of sequels—anticipation for the film has bubbled into irrepressible excitement.
Hans Zimmer will compose the film’s score. Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Josh Brolin will star. Grieg Fraser, who earned an Oscar nomination for his cinematography on “Lion”, will be behind the camera.
But it’s Villeneuve’s film to fail. Director of “Prisoners,” “Enemy,” “Sicario,” “Arrival,” and “Blade Runner: 2049,” he carries an enormous burden on his shoulders. If “Dune” succeeds commercially and artistically, he will do what David Lynch did not: Bring Frank Herbert’s iconic masterwork into mainstream consciousness.
But in doing so, Villeneuve could achieve something more consequential.
Known for the technical flair that brought him acclaim from the Oscar academy, Villeneuve could become the conduit that channels arthouse science fiction into the mainstream blockbuster.
Similar to Jordan Peele, who uses comedy and sociopolitical commentary to introduce larger audiences to arthouse horror, Villeneuve has enough clout to do what he wants. When he directed “Blade Runner: 2049,” Villeneuve took an existing property with franchise potential and turned it into an action-sci-fi thriller with philosophical magnitude.
The superb fight sequence between Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford illustrates this notion. Expertly shot and brilliantly choreographed, the scene carries an elevated flamboyance almost entirely absent from the mainstream sci-fi films in Disney’s oeuvre. But beyond the action—which permeates the film—Villeneuve is not afraid to explore profound ideas. Whether it be the slipperiness of human identity, the failings of a hero or the mistakes of an absent father, the film ends with an emotional resonance common in arthouse cinema.
Intellectual, but straying away from pretentiousness, these films challenge audiences to think about the ideas the auteur is entertaining on screen. “Annihilation,” “Ex Machina,” and “Under the Skin,” are recent examples of films in this canon.
“Dune” offers Villeneuve this opportunity, and fortunately, he is the right auteur for the job. But despite this auspicious union, Dune’s enduring legacy has been defined by the failures of others to adapt it into a successful feature film.
Villeneuve’s career offers a poetic counterweight to this assumed portent of doom. Each of his films are certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. Combined they average a rating of 86 percent.
“Dune” may have found its champion. But like the journey of Paul Atreides, its fate is both presumed and entirely unknown.