Denis Villeneuve is without question one of the hottest directors in Hollywood right now. The filmmaker is currently riding high with an Oscar nomination for his thoughtful and imaginative sci-fi film Arrival, and later this year his star will rise even higher when he releases the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic Blade Runner, entitled Blade Runner 2049.
After helming two back-to-back sci-fi films, one of which is a remake of a classic, you’d think Villeneuve might be ready to move on to another genre. But instead of veering away from science fiction, Villeneuve steered straight into the storm by taking on arguably the most intimidating and difficult of all science fiction literary properties, Frank Herbert’s Dune. If he thought Blade Runner 2049 put pressure on him, wait until he dives into Frank Herbert.
Villeneuve himself sounds like he may realize the difficulty of tackling Dune straight away after doing Blade Runner 2049, but as he explained to Variety, in his mind he really had no choice but to take on the project for Legendary after they picked up the rights:
“I was able to do ‘Blade Runner’ thinking I would do nothing after, because there was a rhythm in the past few years that was very exciting and I learned a lot as a filmmaker. But I got slowly a bit more and more tired physically. And as I was doing ‘Blade Runner,’ which was a very long shoot, I remember thinking, ‘That might be my last movie. I’m going to bed for like three years.’ Now that I’m editing, I’m finding back my energy. And since I was 12 years old there was a book I read, which is ‘Dune,’ which is my favorite book, with ‘1984.’ After ‘Prisoners,’ the producer of Alcon asked me what I would like to do next. I said, ‘Dune,’ spontaneously, that if anyone could get me the rights for ‘Dune’ — and I knew it was very difficult to get those rights. For me it was just a dream, and I guess I’m lucky that Mary Parent from Legendary got the rights and offered it to me. I can’t say no to that. I have images that I am haunted by for 35 years. I will not say no to that. That’s going to be the project of my life.”
Blade Runner may be a challenging world to visualize, but Dune is on a whole other level. Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece, set in the far future, takes place on multiple worlds and deals with a whole vast array of characters involved in an intricate story dealing with all sorts of esoteric and sometimes mystical ideas. Gathering all that material together and shaping it into a coherent narrative was so difficult that even the great David Lynch couldn’t manage it, and when he released his Dune in 1984, it failed both with critics and at the box office. Before Lynch, famed cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to put together a massive, visionary take on Herbert’s novel but his ambitions were beyond what was feasible in the early ’70s and he ultimately had to scrap his plans (his quixotic quest was recalled in the fine documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune).
Villeneuve sounds like he has the passion to make Dune work, and he certainly has the technical skill as he’s proven, but he’s still up against a lot of the same challenges that defeated Jodorowsky and made life so difficult for Lynch. Villeneuve has certain advantages over those filmmakers given today’s technology and what it can accomplish visually, but there is still the major stumbling block of condensing Herbert’s incredibly dense and at times bizarre novel into a workable form.
If Villeneuve can somehow pull off Dune, we could finally see more of Herbert’s many Dune novels make their way to the big screen. One day, the entire saga may finally be adapted. That would be an amazing accomplishment given the massiveness of the universe created by Herbert. Before he can get to work on Dune, though, Villeneuve has to complete Blade Runner 2049 and get it out on movie screens later this year.