For the first time since David Lynch’s attempt in 1984, “Dune,” often hailed as the greatest science fiction novel of all time, is making its return to the big screen. The complex coming-of-age story centers around Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), whose family is thrust into the deadly environment on the planet Arrakis and must maneuver larger looming political machinations. Based on author Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic, “Dune” is a prime example of the hero’s journey, rife with political and religious commentary and containing some of the most immersive worldbuilding ever committed to the page.
Helmed by none other than visionary director Denis Villeneuve, this latest sci-fi blockbuster arrives determined to be the definitive adaptation, offering a faithful translation of the source material that seeks to capture both the emotional and physical size and scale of the story. Top that off by featuring a stellar cast with Chalamet and Zendaya in the leading roles, and it’s hard not to be excited. In a roundtable interview with The Daily Californian, Chalamet and Zendaya discussed the experience of participating in such a highly anticipated project.
Dune’s sprawling cast of characters — from the nobles of House Atreides and the secretive Bene Gesserit to the ruthless Harkonnens — are portrayed by a wealth of A-list talent. Chalamet and Zendaya, both brilliant actors in their own right, have found their way into the biggest ensemble cast of 2021 alongside the likes of Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgård, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin and many others.
“These are some of our greatest actors working today, so I was deeply attracted to that,” Chalamet said about his castmates, regarding what interested him in the production. “To get to work on a movie of this size, but one that doesn’t lose any dramatic integrity, doesn’t lose any ambition and how seriously it takes itself, not in a bad way — that’s like the crème de la crème, at least for me.”
Chalamet’s youthful energy and wisdom beyond his years made him Villeneuve’s ideal candidate to play the young Paul Atreides, the yet-to-be messiah at the heart of “Dune.” Opposite him is Zendaya as Chani, a mysterious girl born on Arrakis who frequently appears in Paul’s dreams. For the actress, being a part of the director’s vision was her own dream come true.
“I think what’s so important is having that right director, that person who connects with the material in a different way,” Zendaya said. “I mean, the fact that Denis has such a connection to this, being that he read it as a young person and was able to grow with it and grow up with it quite literally and has been a fan with it for so long, I think that is a greater emotional connection to the piece that he’s creating. And I don’t think there’s anyone better for the job.”
Villeneuve’s “Dune” navigates the story through the eyes of Paul, who’s forced into an entirely new world much larger than the one he grew up knowing. Towering spaceships dwarf already sprawling landscapes — working with a top-of-the-line budget and some of Hollywood’s finest as collaborators, the film is a technical marvel to behold.
Yet, despite all the technological spectacle, “Dune” is ultimately a story of humanity. The heart of the narrative lies with its characters, and Villeneuve sought to preserve all the nuance and depth that make these sci-fi figures familiar.
“Obviously as an actor, you have a very close eye on your arc, or what you’re doing day to day, especially if you shoot out of order,” Chalamet said. “But at the end of the day, it was Denis, who had his eye on the huge scale to production as much as the individual arcs of the characters in it.”
Though “Dune” takes place in the year 10,191, it offers an enduring exploration of the ways in which people live up to and defy expectations. While Paul and Chani’s lives are — at surface value — otherworldly, their journeys are universal by nature.
“In a very dramatic way, this is a coming-of-age story and whether it be a bigger metaphor for something that we’ve all kind of experienced,” Zendaya said. “Which is just what it’s like to grow up and feel all these pressures and these ideas of the things that you should be or might have to be for other people, and what that feels like to try to fit into those shoes, you feel like you can’t fit yet.”
While Villeneuve’s new film may mark young, 21st-century audiences’ first time encountering “Dune,” the story remains timeless.
“This book didn’t come out when we were growing up,” Chalamet said on the perseverance of “Dune” from generation to generation. “There’s many qualities to it, but if young people can relate to what Chani or Paul are going through at the center of it, and can also intake all the themes that sometimes fly above my head, then we really succeeded.”
“Dune” premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on Oct. 22.