Dune arrives in theaters weighted with baggage. It’s based on a beloved book, Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic of the same name, which was published in 1965. (It also launched a slightly less-beloved ongoing series, first by Herbert himself, then picked-up and continued by his son, Brian.) Dune is also the name of an abominable film, David Lynch’s embarrassment of an attempted adaptation, made in 1984. An extremely handsome and charismatic podcaster has covered that trainwreck for those who are interested, suffice to say it’s the worst film ever made.
Still others have cracked under the pressure of adapting Dune for cinema. Jodorowsky’s Dune covers that filmmaker’s vaultingly ambitious, failed attempt to bring Arrakis to life in the 1970s, resulting in the “most famous movie never made.” Even the Sci-Fi (now SyFy) Channel got in on the action, producing a relatively well-received miniseries out of the book and its sequels.
Yet for all that time and effort, no one got it right. No one, that is, until now. Denis Villeneuve’s film, released in theaters on October 22nd, has finally done it. Where all previous efforts failed, this one succeeds. This movie is no gaudy, tarted-up Arrakis; it’s Dune.
For those unfamiliar, Dune is basically sci-fi Game of Thrones. Two rival houses, the evil Harokonnens and the noble Atreides, vie for control of the planet Arrakis, nicknamed “Dune” since it’s a world-spanning desert. Dune is the only source of melange, aka “spice,” a slightly hallucinogenic substance that brings good health, prolongs life, and enables interstellar travel. It is that last bit that makes spice the most valuable substance in the universe.
As the movie begins, the Emperor has taken Dune away from House Harkonnen, and handed it to their hated rival the Atreides, seemingly in the hopes that the Atreides will be better able to control Dune’s native population, the Bedouin-like Fremen. In this world of power politics, however, all is not as it seems, and the consequences of any mistake can be disastrous.
As a work of adaptation, Dune is a loyal endeavor. It is not, however, loyal to a fault, which was one of the shortcomings of Lynch’s debacle. Changes have been made where it serves the story, or to update it for modern sensibilities. For instance, the novel portrays a great deal of character thoughts and internal monologue. Where the 1984 version took the most literal road possible, loading the movie with interminable voiceovers, Dune 2021 finds more creative ways to deliver this information, be it through dialogue, sign language, or visual means.
Those familiar with Villeneuve’s filmography will be unsurprised to learn that the visuals on display in Dune are a major selling point. Every scene paints the screen.
Dune marks Villeneauve’s first time working with Cinematographer Greig Fraser, but all of the visual style that made Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 such rich viewing experiences is on display here. (Fraser, for his part, is no stranger to galaxies far away, having worked with Gareth Edwards on Rogue One.)
There are shots in this movie designed to astound–massive Atreides ships rising from the oceans of their home planet of Caladan; elegant, dragonfly-like ornithoptors taking off from a wind-swept platform; and, of course, the colossal sandworms that menace any who are foolish enough to step a rhythmic foot onto the desert sands.
For this reason, I am telling you this right now (and I don’t always say it): See this movie in a theater. Do not stream it. Go to a theater. See it on the biggest screen you possibly can, with a sound system that shatters your bones.
Not for nothing, Dune is also a star-vehicle for half a dozen of-the-moment actors, young and old, of the “they’re so hot right now” variety, including Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, and Rebecca Ferguson. Even the older, more established actors they picked are all cool ones, like Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, and Charlotte Rampling.
Chalamet acquits himself well as Paul, the heir to House Atreides, a powerful family in an intergalactic Game of Thrones-sitch. His father, Leto, is played by the deeply charismatic Oscar Isaac, while his mother, Jessica, is played by Rebecca Ferguson. Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a secretive all-female cult with its own agenda and plans for Paul. Jessica is only the latest in Ferguson’s growing list of characters one might describe as “women not to be fucked with,” and Ferguson damn-near runs away with the movie playing her.
Jason Momoa nearly catches her, though, playing the swordsman Duncan Idaho (a descendant of Hannah Montana). The exuberant ass-kicker role isn’t a stretch for Momoa, but it’s also one he plays with relish, and in Dune, he radiates charm.
Everyone is great, though. Above all else, this movie has exquisite casting. Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen, arch-enemy of the Atreides family, makes a deep impression with maddeningly-little screen time, but hopefully, he will feature more prominently in the sequel, as will Zendaya’s Chani.
Since that’s the thing about Dune that the advertising has curiously failed to make clear: It is only Part 1 of 2. The novel is quite long, and an extremely complex, intricate story, at that. Adapting the entire tale into one film is impossible–isn’t that right Mr. Lynch?–so Villeneuve and co. didn’t even try. Dune only adapts the first half of it, and it is very clearly only half a story.
It feels like a Part 1, too. Characters are introduced hard, with their full names, to make sure you remember them. Multiple plot threads are weaved that you can tell are intended to pay off later–later as in, not in this movie. It’s great for what it is, but it does feel incomplete by the end, and I fault the advertising for not making this clearer to audiences going into an almost 3-hour movie. Lord of the Rings didn’t have this problem.
That, however, is pretty much the only knock I have to levy against this movie. It’s quite long, it ends rather abruptly, and it only tells half a story, but all of these issues are inherent to the fact that it is part one of a two-part saga. I cannot give the movie full marks until I see how well part 2 (assuming there is a part 2; fingers crossed the box office returns are good) sticks the landing, but color me impressed.
I’ve seen its length and pacing come in for criticism elsewhere, but I do not share this critique. I will grant that the movie is long, and it’s a little slow, but I would argue that this is a selling point. This isn’t Star Wars or Transformers; it’s not an action movie. This is a science fiction film for grown-ups. It wants you to take your time, and think about it. Like I said above, it paints the screen, and like a gorgeous painting, it invites you to sit for a moment, and consider what you’re looking at. Is it a thrill-a-minute? No. Instead, it’s thoughtful, it’s mature. It’s Dune.
Visually stunning, phenomenally acted, gorgeously designed, epic in scope, and elegant in execution, Dune is an extremely promising opening act. Here’s hoping we get to see a finale that lives up to its potential.
Dune gets 4 out of 5 sandworms.
Dune is in theaters now, and is available on HBOMax.