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Let me tell you a story about a boy and a book that would change his life. Around his 13th year on planet Earth, young Denis Villeneuve picked up Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. Perhaps feeling different or disconnected growing up in Quebec, there was something about Dune that transfixed Villeneuve.

As Villeneuve said to Tom Power on CBC’s Q, he connected with the journey of the main character Paul, a young man struggling with his heritage who saw a way to become a truer version of himself through embracing another culture. 

Soon Villeneuve was on his own path, rising up the ranks in Canadian film, with prickly, provocative movies such as Incendies and Polytechnique. His willingness to wrestle with difficult subjects (and an Oscar nomination) brought him to Hollywood where he continued challenging audiences with thrillers such as Prisoners and Sicario

Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 found Villeneuve returning to his first love, science fiction. But Dune was always his lodestar. One fateful day he got the call from Legendary, the studio which owned the rights to the Dune series novels. 

As Villeneuve told CBC at the Toronto International Film Festival: “I called my wife and said ‘I might do Dune’ and I felt a deep joy and a massive weight on my shoulders.” 

WATCH | Villeneuve and actor Rebecca Ferguson on Dune:

Director Denis Villeneuve and actor Rebecca Ferguson talk about bringing the epic sci-fi novel Dune to life and gambling on a sequel. 5:54

Goth Star Wars

In many ways, the film plays as a goth version of Star Wars, fewer laughs, more of a brooding story about deserts, destiny and yes, sandworms the size of city blocks. Part of what grounds the epic space opera is Villeneuve’s decision to film on location and in massively constructed sets as much as possible.  

Villeneuve generally eschewed green screens in favour of real-world locations, such as the verdant cliffs of Norway and the rolling dunes of Abu Dhabi and Jordan. The shimmering horizon isn’t a visual effect but a place where the actors could feel the sand between their toes. 

A duke’s son with the world on his shoulders — Timothée Chalamet plays the pivotal role of Paul Atreides in the movie Dune. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Set far in the future, the centre of the story revolves around the House Atreides. The benevolent ruling family, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), have been ordered by the Emperor to take over the governing of Arrakis, the one planet where the sand contains spice — a magical mineral that aids in the navigation of space, making it the most valuable substance in the galaxy. 

While the Atreides begin adapting to their new home the story centres on Paul, the Duke’s son played by Timothée Chalamet. Trained to lead all his life, Chalamet portrays Paul as someone extremely capable but quietly wondering if he’s ready for the task ahead. 

Paul doesn’t lack for help. There’s his mother, Rebecca Ferguson as the mysterious Lady Jessica, a member of a shadowy cult of mystics who see great promise in Paul.

But the clearest form of danger comes in the corpulent body of the Baron, the head of the rival House Harkonnen played by Stellan Skarsgård channelling equal parts Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now and Jabba the Hut. 

Dune’s intimidating density

Now let me fess up. I have not read Frank Herbert’s Dune. I know. Take away my nerd card. Which is why I perhaps needed to see Villeneuve’s Dune twice. My first viewing I was awestruck but also bewildered. The warring feudal factions, the secretive Bene Gesserit sisterhood and the prophecy of the Muad’Dib… it is a lot.  

On my second viewing I was able to better appreciate the various players and what Villeneuve has accomplished, A film world where everything has a purpose and a story. The repeated motifs of the bull drawn from the Atreides matador grandfather. The technology of the stillsuits, which recirculate water to survive the deadly climate. Or the ceremonial knives of the indigenous Fremen, carved from the massive teeth of the sand worms. 

Lest you think this is nothing but bickering families fighting over magic space spice, Dune‘s 255 minutes also feature explosive battles, invading armadas and sword battles where blades bounce off flickering force fields.

Creative gamble with no guarantee

For all the amazing technology on display one aspect of the story seems archaic. The indigenous Fremen who live in harmony with Arakiss’ unforgiving environment appear to be inspired by elements of Middle Eastern and North African cultures. But it’s Paul, this pale prince they look to as a messianic figure. For a movie filled with bold ideas, the white saviour who comes to save the day is an old trope. Readers of the Frank Herbert novel will know that it has much more to say on the matter. But you won’t see that on the big screen because Villeneuve’s Dune ends in the middle. 

Rather than squeezing all of Herbert’s novel into one film, Villeneuve decided to gamble, filming only Part 1, essentially half of the first book. So just as we’re getting acclimatized, finally understanding the stakes, the movie halts in its tracks.

This too is very much Villeneuve, an uncompromising artist who makes movies on his own terms. Asked why didn’t he compress the novel into a single, unified film he told CBC News: “I love risk. I felt that it was a great creative gamble.” Warner Brothers has yet to confirm whether there will be a Part 2, although there are some promising signs.  

For the moment, it depends on how many movie fans decide to follow Villeneuve into the desert. He says he sees something honest about the predicament: “Here’s the very first part of the story, if you like it, we will tell you the second part. If you don’t, thank you, that’s all folks.” 

WATCH | CBC News reporters Eli Glasner and Jackson Weaver trade takes on Dune 

Dune: Settle in for a sweeping epic

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s version of Dune is sweeping and uncompromising, so be ready to settle in for a cinematic masterpiece that’s dense and detailed. TEASE: Like your movies dense and detailed? Then this cinematic masterpiece is for you. 10:08

The director says he put all his passion into Part 1 so if it doesn’t continue he won’t be crushed. Although Ferguson isn’t as serene. “Don’t say that,” she responded when asked about not continuing. 

“We’ve just laid the cement, the ground tools to understanding the characters, now we can play.” 

Dune is playing in theatres across Canada.