Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ is a nuanced re-telling of a sci-fi epic

DUBAI: There are few book series with a grander vision than “Dune.” Since its publication in 1965, Frank Herbert’s classic saga, chronicling a desert planet that holds the universe’s most valuable commodity — Spice — and the inevitable power struggles to control it, has continued to inspire new generations of readers, becoming one of the essential texts of science fiction and fantasy.

It has long been thought that no filmmaker would ever properly be able to capture the sense of scale and wonder that the book holds — even after the great David Lynch gave it a shot in 1984. But with his new adaptation, director Denis Villeneuve has put that notion to rest, decades after he himself discovered the book as a child looking to get lost in something bigger than himself, which ended up inspiring him to follow the path he’s on today. 

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE.” (Supplied)

“I discovered the book in my youth. I remember being totally fascinated by its poetry, by what it was saying about nature,” Villeneuve tells Arab News. “The main character of ‘Dune’ is nature. At the time, I was studying science. I thought I could become either a filmmaker or a biologist. The way Frank Herbert approached ecology in his book was just so fresh, so rich, so powerful.”

As life-changing as the book has been for many, Villeneuve got it made through sheer force of will, both because of his love for the work and due to his ever-growing reputation as one of the only filmmakers alive who can make films on a blockbuster scale while also imbuing them with true artistry. After a stellar run including “Prisoners” (2013), “Sicario” (2015), “Arrival” (2016), and “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), the prospect of Villeneuve making “Dune” was enough to have the world’s top actors chasing him down to be a part of it.

Zendaya as Chani in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE.” (Supplied)

“I wrote to him a few years ago saying, ‘I love “Dune” — just throwing it out there,’” says Oscar Isaac, who plays Duke Leto, one of the film’s lead roles. “He wrote back, ‘You love “Dune”? Interesting…’ Nobody is making movies the way this man does. These deep, beautiful, poetic movies on a massive scale.”  

To capture the desert planet of Arakkis, Villeneuve turned his gaze to the Middle East, bringing along his all-star cast including Isaac, Timothée Chamalet, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson and Stellan Skarsgard to the real-life dunes of the Liwa desert in Abu Dhabi and Wadi Rum in Jordan, both of which proved a memorable experience for all Villeneuve’s collaborators. 

 “I fell in love with the desert. I mean, literally every time I talk with someone, I speak about running up on the sand dunes and just sitting under the stars, and the clarity that gave me. It’s just so clean. It’s so beautiful. It’s so humbling. It’s meditative,” Ferguson tells Arab News. 

Javier Bardem as Stilgar in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Dune.” (Supplied)

For Momoa, the “Aquaman” and “Game of Thrones” star who plays Duncan Idaho, a brash and noble swordmaster, both Abu Dhabi and Jordan were also transformative experiences, especially as he considers his own humble origins in the US tropical island state of Hawaii.

“I’m a rock climber. So, I’ve seen a lot of rocks in my time, but I’ve never seen anything like this. It just felt like rock from another world. It was unbelievable. It’s so beautiful. It’s totally opposite where I grew up. I would be in the desert as camels just strolled by. It made me appreciate Earth, and how beautiful this world is. There are so many different planets on our planet,” Momoa says.

Villeneuve took over a Liwa desert resort for filming, bringing the cast and crew out in the early morning to capture the mist and haze that only the Abu Dhabi desert offered, a quality that inspired the filmmaker throughout their stay. 

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides, Zendaya as Chani, Javier Bardem as Stilgar, and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Dune.” (Supplied)

“It is one of my best memories from that shoot. It was exhausting. But it was so rewarding. And we had so much fun. And I think that everybody brought back great memories from that trip,” says Villeneuve. 

In an era when so many films are being created with actors spending months in front of a green screen, Villeneuve was dedicated to using as much of the real world as possible. In addition to Abu Dhabi and Jordan, he created sprawling sets reminiscent of the early days of Hollywood, building palaces that matched the grandiose spirit of the source material. All of that helped “Dune” become the film that fans had always dreamed of, and added to the film’s performances. 

“It does help when it’s real,” says Skarsgard. “With this film, it’s real sets, not CGI. And you feel the power of it. And they’re done so beautifully and so minimalistic. When you come on that set, that huge set, as an actor, there’s a lot of things you don’t have to do because this set does it for you.”

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