“Size does matter,” insisted the posters for Roland Emmerich’s 1998 crack at Godzilla. Unfortunately, his version of the King of the Monsters could barely be picked out among the film’s torrential downpours and towering New York City skyscrapers. Size mattered, and Godzilla failed to meet the height requirements. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune makes no such mistake.
Dune is a big movie with a big cast based on a big book with big ideas. While some of those ideas might have been lost in the journey from page to screen, the finished project certainly doesn’t lack for grandeur. Size is the sales pitch—the reason audiences are risking COVID to see the thing in theaters. In that regard, Dune is a success, using scale to surprise and delight audiences and reveal the film’s thematic concerns through sheer enormousness.
Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is our guide through the world of Dune: Part 1. The wispy Chalamet makes for a good vantage point in this respect. He looks like he might blow away just perceiving the world around him.
This approach is not new to Dune cinematographer Greig Fraser, who brought a real sense of scale to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, who made a Godzilla movie where size actually mattered in 2014, knew how to shoot and frame ships in relationship to the much bigger Death Star. It’s a Star Wars tradition that filmmakers headed for the galaxy far, far away sometimes neglect. From its opening and arguably most famous shot, Star Wars aimed to show how small the rebellion stood next to the Galactic Empire. Dune operates in a similar way.
In Dune, scale is measured against Paul Atreides, who looks minuscule compared to the creatures and ships around him. This is by design. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Fraser said that shooting the movie from Paul’s point of view was essential to its look. “Our approach was very much to be with this boy, to be at his height, in his head, to see the world through his eyes.”
Shot on IMAX cameras, the film bounces between 1.43:1 and 1.90:1 aspect ratios, favoring the height instead of the width of the frame. “[Villeneuve] dreamed his film in 4:3 [aspect ratio], which initially was an unusual thing to hear because 4:3 doesn’t immediately make me think of a big epic,” Fraser told The Hollywood Reporter. “But when I saw how we were shooting it for IMAX, I saw Dune how Denis saw it. The story is big. It’s epic. You can’t really get bigger from a scale perspective. But ultimately, it’s about this boy, Paul Atreides [and] about Paul’s journey with his family… We had to view the world from Paul’s eyes.”
Dune goes out of its way to keep surprising the viewer with its scale, contracting and expanding from shot to shot. In one sequence, Paul; his father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac); and an accompanying crew take their ornithopter over to a malfunctioning Spice harvester before an oncoming sandworm can devour the machine and its workers. When one massive ship, a futuristic sphere known as a Carryall, fails to airlift the harvester to safety, Leto orders them to fly over and evacuate the workers themselves.
In this sequence, Villeneuve and Dune editor Joe Walker cut back and forth from closeups of the harvester and Carryall to wide shots of the two ships against the backdrop of the seemingly endless desert of Arrakis. First, we see the ships in relation to each other and then the ships against the landscape. The ships are undoubtedly immense, but compared to the actual dunes of Dune, they’re pretty small.
When Paul lands, the camera moves in tight on him, starting in closeups that fill the IMAX screen, making Paul’s face nearly 100 feet tall. The film then cuts to reveal the massive ship that towers over Chalamet’s tiny frame. Paul is but a grain of sand compared to the harvester.
Then Villeneuve and Walker reveal the worm. Shai-Hulud easily barrels through the desert terrain like a shark in the ocean, pushing up waves of sand to the surface. Its gaping maw swallows the harvester like a Tic Tac.
The layers of size keep in check the film’s thematic concerns, particularly man’s inability to master the natural world. For all the big ships, big egos, and big plans of the men of Dune, the thing they value most could scarcely be any smaller: specks of sand.
Dust and rain cover the screen throughout Dune, filling the air with contrasting points that make characters and sets appear larger on screen. Villeneuve evokes Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will—and, by proxy, Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers and numerous Star Wars movies—to sell the might of the Sardaukar on a rain-soaked planet. Against the planetary backdrop, the rain creates a point in the mid-ground—another visual layer emphasizing the contrast in sizes—to showcase the massive army and the ritual throat singer atop their platform. The rain helps sell the depth.
Elsewhere, a tiny hunter-seeker that attempts to assassinate Paul floats through a little galaxy of its own. It crosses the divide of Paul’s bedroom, navigating a starfield composed of dots of dust and digital projections from Paul’s studies.
“Dreams are messages from the deep” are the first words uttered in Dune, and it’s a potent analogy for how Paul grows from the moody prince on Caladan to the messiah of Arrakis. His worldview expands as he becomes that figure, but his power was never absent. He, too, was just a small fleck on the universe, a hunter-seeker in his own right.
But there’s a level of irony in all this. Despite how imposing the Harkonnens (especially Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen) appear, the most inconsiderable items are the most valuable and the most powerful. Spice, after all, is just sand, and these grains can fill the screen with flickering wonder but also slip through Paul’s hands.
Spice outmaneuvers and outwits pretty much an entire empire. A thinly veiled metaphor for oil, the resource is arduous to mine because of the environment that contains it. The world of Arrakis might be covered in valuable galactic fuel, but getting it off the planet is nearly impossible because of the native Fremen, the sandworms, and the heat.
Size matters, but that’s also true in reverse. Showcasing these sizes in such a way allows Villeneuve to hammer home the importance of Spice, its inflexibility, and how difficult it proves to harvest. Of course, the imperialist forces of Dune might have bigger ships, bigger armies, and bigger Harkonnens (that can fly and make themselves appear even more enormous). But the one thing they can’t get is as abundant as it is minute.
With Dune: Part 2 towering in the distance, one wonders how much bigger this series can get. Dune’s massive size sets a challenge for the director to outdo himself. However, based on Part One’s success, Villeneuve shouldn’t be afraid of overreaching. Fear, after all, is the mind-killer.