Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is simultaneously the movie that I was hoping it would be, and the movie I was dreading. Frank Herbert’s book is beloved because of its impressive attention to detail, and this incarnation, unlike any before it, has the patience and resources to bring the source material into spectacular, jaw-dropping reality. The cast is tremendous, the themes are phenomenally captured, and every shot is transportive to such a level that you become hypnotized.
It’s everything that an adaptation of the first half of Dune should be – but therein lies the problem: being based on only a fraction of the book, it does wind up feeling incomplete, and the desire to immediately watch Part 2 is arguably too powerful. It’s an exceptional and special big screen experience, and does an incredible job laying the foundation for what is an expansive, unique universe, but it also can’t help but feel like the serving of a decadent and delicious appetizer that comes out while the epic entrée to come is still braising in the kitchen.
Made by an array of filmmakers who clearly have a deep passion for the original novel, Dune takes audiences across the stars in the year 10191 to Caladan – the lush home planet of House Atreides. Led by the bold and righteous Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), the eponymous family and those who follow them swear fealty to the galactic emperor, but at the same time there is a recognition that the influence and strength of the clan is growing to rival that of those they serve.
Fearing what could result from this power shift, the emperor orchestrates political machinations to prevent it – secretly collaborating with the brutal, fascistic House Harkonnen, led by the physically massive and sadistic Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), and the religious order called the Bene Geserit, led by the stoic and ruthless Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling). A trap is set that begins with House Atreides being given control of Arrakis, a desert planet that is the only source of the universe’s most valuable commodity: melange, also known as spice.
As seen through the eyes of Duke Leto’s son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet), and Leto’s concubine/Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), House Atreides moves to the new world aware of the conspiracy-driven setup, and with intentions to turn the tables. While the Harkonnens spent years subjugating and annihilating the indigenous population of Arrakis, known as the Fremen, it is the intention of the Atreides clan to form an alliance with them and together create a union that nobody in the universe can challenge.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a perfect adaptation of one of the great literary sci-fi epics.
The complexity of the plot and the expansiveness of the world are the reasons Dune has been seen for decades as a book impossible to properly adapt, but Denis Villeneuve and his collaborators have cracked the code with their approach and have sculpted an epic that is stunningly faithful in its depiction of events that transpire in the book and in its greater spirit. It’s not a facsimile – as there are scenes shifted around, minor details changed, and there are a few key characters seemingly put aside in anticipation of Part 2 – but the movie is otherwise extraordinary in its ability to directly translate the source material across mediums without compromise.
One of the great challenges in the adaptation process surely had to be the war between scope and pace, as showcasing the scale of the universe and its intricacies can be deadly to the movement of the story, but Denis Villeneuve and co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth keep it constantly flowing without any sacrifices. The layering of characters and plot unfurl in harmony as you are simultaneously drawn in by the political intrigue and become invested in the heroes.
As far as the latter goes, it also certainly helps that Dune’s ensemble is both loaded with extreme talent, and is perfectly put together, with everyone flawlessly gets at the core of who they are playing. Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac are the triumvirate that lead the cast, and they are all phenomenal – with Chalamet’s Paul chastened by the weight of his greater destiny; Ferguson’s Lady Jessica emotionally torn in her loyalties; and Isaac’s Duke Leto impressive in his nobility. Truly there is no weak link among the performers, however, as Jason Momoa is impressively subtle and powerful as the warrior Duncan Idaho; Stellan Skarsgard’s Baron Harkonnen is appropriately grotesque and horrifying; and both Javier Bardem and Zendaya deliver great turns as the hardened and determined Stilgar and Chani, two of the key Fremen characters.
Watching Dune, you feel like you’ve left the Earth behind.
Intricate as the plot of Dune is, and as many characters as there are, it’s made easy to fall into the world simply because of its magnificence. This is in no way surprising given what we’ve previously seen from Denis Villeneuve’s directorial vision, but that doesn't undermine its awesome success. It’s not an overly complicated futuristic universe, as the sci-fi aesthetic is made to be grounded and familiar (it’s a society that has moved past computers), but all the same you feel like you’re looking into a window across space and time, and it’s unendingly thrilling. The cinematography, the production design, and the genius visual effects blend in such a way that the line between fiction and reality fades from your mind, and it’s breathtaking.
It’s pure cinema, as every department on the film has delivered work that sweeps the audience away. Visually, no special element of the source material is left unexplored, from the beautifully designed stillsuits (clothing made to recycle the body’s excretion of water on Arrakis), to the dragonfly-like helicopters known as ornithopters, to the god-like sandworms that live below the surface of the desert planet. Dune is also an auditory journey, not only featuring enveloping sound editing, but one of the best scores Hans Zimmer has ever composed.
Dune is an immensely satisfying experience, but it also still has plenty of story still to tell.
Remarkable as the adaptation is, Dune is on a track to be at the center of a debate that has been happening about Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for decades: while many rightfully hail the 1980 film as one of the greatest blockbusters of all time, it also receives valid criticism for not independently featuring its own complete narrative. Thrilling, stunning and ambitious as Denis Villeneuve’s film is, it’s also defined by being a Part 1, and just by its nature it doesn’t provide conclusions for its biggest character arcs and themes. It’s certainly an experience unto itself, and one that must not be missed, but it’s also undeniable that it will require reassessment when the rest of the director’s vision is revealed – and if there is a movie god, we’ll see that happen sooner rather than later.
Until that time comes, Dune exists independently as a cinematic accomplishment all the same, and one to be marveled at. Denis Villeneuve’s movie is the film interpretation that fans have been waiting to see for decades, and one that should be experienced on the biggest screens possible the most times possible – both to properly experience it the way it is meant to be experienced, and to ensure that the epic story gets to continue.
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