Dune’s reputation precedes it.
Frank Herbert’s novel is one of the most influential works of science fiction — and one of the most unadaptable, the kind of uniquely sprawling epic that has broken many great filmmakers, from Alejandro Jodorowsky to David Lynch.
Yet, Denis Villeneuve’s epic space opera finally offers Dune the adaptation it always deserved, preserving the novel’s complex lore — as well as its political threads — and delivering a narrative as giddily entertaining as the original Star Wars.
Yes, the rumors are true: This is only half the story laid out by Herbert’s novel. But against all odds, Denis Villeneuve made a film that feels complete, even as it had this writer salivating for Part Two as soon as the credits rolled.
For those unfamiliar with the books, Dune is set in the far, far future, when the known universe is ruled by a feudal-like system of great houses. They are led by an all-powerful emperor whose power depends on the “spice melange.” This naturally produced narcotic enables everything from faster-than-light travel to the prolonging of lives for the rich and powerful to extraordinary mental powers for a select few. The only place in the universe this psychotropic spice is harvested is the inhospitable planet Arrakis, where House Atreides has been sent under orders from the Emperor to serve as the planet's stewards.
Broadly, Dune follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), heir to House Atreides and son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), who sees his family attacked by treacherous enemies and is forced to wander Arrakis in order to survive. The Fremen, indigenous inhabitants of Arrakis, speak of an ancient prophecy waiting to be fulfilled, and Paul learns his destiny is amid the planet’s unwelcoming, unforgiving sand dunes.
The best compliment one can give Dune is that it doesn't feel like a two-and-a-half-hour epic, though it certainly looks like one. Villeneuve, whose visual sensibilities have been formidably established by serious-minded sci-fi epics like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, brings the same weight and solemnity to this film’s pacing and visuals. Dune is a dense, at times inaccessible story with long stretches of silence and myriad establishing shots of the desert; its story unfolds meticulously and without haste.
But such an approach is necessary to convey the grand sense of scale in Dune, not to mention the intricate political, cultural, religious, ecological, and social systems interconnecting within Herbert’s story.
The unique tone of Dune serves another purpose, as the film seeks to establish itself as a new franchise player in the crowded fantasy sphere. As if to position the film as a new Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, Villeneuve spends much of the runtime enticing his audience to invest in this strange new world, luxuriating in rich details and moving the story through cultures and locations that all feel marvelously distinct from one another.
With magnificent costumes and sets that follow geometric designs in ways both futuristic and curiously ancient, Villeneuve’s Dune is impressively unique in its world-building. More than mere WWII-era fighter jets in space, the film turns spaceships, for example, into unusually round edifices that could have been drawn from an Apple designer’s sketchbook. And remember when Rogue One introduced the largest number of planets ever seen in a Star Wars movie, yet they all felt identical save for different climates? Dune doesn't have that problem.
From Arrakis to Caladan to Giedi Prime, each new location's climate informs everything about its civilizations, as architecture, color palettes, and set decor all foreground the filmmakers’ dazzling imagination. Giedi Prime appears born of an H. R. Giger nightmare, while the hellish deserts of Arrakis inform not only the kinds of vehicles and wardrobes used to survive constant sand storms and scorching heat but also the ways its inhabitants behave and what customs they follow.
There is certainly something to be said about the way Dune (both the movie and the book) appropriates Arab and Islamic culture, history, and symbolism to tell the story of Paul, who belongs to neither culture, but the film at least draws a clear, distinct line between how the Fremen act and the unbowed, unbent, unbroken nature of Arrakis itself, showcasing a crucial nuance within the worlds it depicts.
Of course, one cannot write about Dune and not mention its iconic sandworms; this film does them justice. These enormous beasts are treated more like the shark in Jaws, used sparingly but effectively in order to heighten a sense of dread and tension. The excellent sound design and cinematography make small tremblings in the sand evoke those cups of water rippling in Jurassic Park. Hans Zimmer delivers yet another rousing score that mixes grandiose and operatic sounds with a surprising rock style, lending Dune a unique sonic palette to match its visuals.
Even with an ensemble cast as large and impressive as the one on display in this film, Dune finds the time to give every character screen time, whether it's Oscar Isaac's stoic Duke, Stellan Skarsgård's genuinely scary Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, or Rebecca Ferguson's enigmatic and remorseful Lady Jessica.
Without a doubt, however, this movie belongs to Jason Momoa’s intrepid Duncan Idaho and Timothée Chalamet's soldiering Paul. Momoa's Duncan showcases the terrifying battle strength of Khal Drogo, though Duncan is also roguish and playful in the vein of Han Solo. He delights himself by fighting like a demon, yet this version of the character is also a fun, warm presence whose close bond with Paul is grounded in sincere affection.
Meanwhile, Chalamet gives arguably the best performance of his young career as Paul. Subtle and subdued, maintaining a stoic and regal demeanor before strangers but quietly breaking down in front of those he trusts, this is a young man who understands the burden of being a chosen one. He knows the path of his hero's journey will be paved in the blood of others. Indeed, Dune interrogates the idea of a “messiah” in a way no other genre movie of this scale has, focusing less on the actual person than on the concept of an "anointed one" and what belief in such a figure can do to a group of people.
Villeneuve made a film that tells a complete story, though it ends on a cliffhanger that can be taken as an invitation to riot, should Part Two fail to materialize. This is not, however, an Avengers: Infinity War-style ending, closing out during a second act. Instead, Dune feels more like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, a story that clearly had more to give but still delivered a satisfying conclusion to its first chapter.
We would be missing out on plenty if Part Two never comes to be, but Part One is still a saga worth watching and rewatching. More than anything, Dune feels like the start of a story that will soon become the stuff of sci-fi filmmaking legend.
Dune premiered September 3 at the Venice Film Festival.
Dune arrives in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22, 2021.