Widely considered one of the very best science fiction books, Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel “Dune” was also my favorite book as a teen. It’s set thousands of years in the future and humanity has spread across the galaxy. Great family clans called Houses run various planets in a feudal society and the Padishah Emperor rules over it all, seeking to balance the power of each great house to ensure none become so powerful they can challenge him and take control of the galaxy. Back in 1984 hit-or-miss Director David Lynch took on the challenge of filming the story, creating a movie that lacked the profundity of the novel and has aged very poorly. Most sci-fi fans just roll their eyes when 1984’s Dune is mentioned.
After his last two cinematic successes, Director Denis Villeneuve was up for the challenge and spent years exploring how to create an on-screen visual epic that would match the epic tone of the novel. The splendid Arrival (2016) demonstrated that Villeneuve could deliver a complex storyline with awe-inspiring and curiosity-piquing imagery and concepts, and his Blade Runner 2049 (2017) also showed that he could take a beloved story and expand on it in interesting ways. Denis thinks big and that’s just what’s needed for Dune to really work on the silver screen.
The great news is that he delivers, and this new version of Dune is excellent. Powerful, engaging, emotional, and timely, it’s one of the most awe-inspiring films of this decade.
The film centers around Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), the head of House Atreides. They are a formidable military power, but more importantly, the Duke is politically savvy, thanks to insight and counsel from his beloved concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Jessica has an edge, though, because she’s a member of the Bene Gesserit which gives her greater awareness of people’s thoughts and intentions. When the Emperor grants the spice planet Arrakis (informally known as Dune due to its inhospitable environment and endless sand dunes), it seems like a wonderful gift: Arrakis is the only known source of melange (also known as “spice”), the most valuable commodity in the universe.
Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) is not happy to be kicked off Arrakis after many years of amassing untold riches for House Harkonnen, however. He plots revenge with his violent underling Beast Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista), scheming how they can steal back the planet after ruining House Atreides. Duke Leto knows not to trust the Harkennons, and their arrival on the planet Arrakis is tense. The Duke has sent an advance party headed by the faithful Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) but is that sufficient? Idaho and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) are Paul’s beloved and trusted combat instructors and teachers.
Harvesting the spice is dangerous work and the Harkonnen approach has always been aggressive and oppressive. It’s a colony and the indigenous Fremen are but resources to consume. Their deaths are just a cost of harvesting the spice. That’s not how House Atreides approaches the inhabitants of a planet, but how can they connect with the leaders of the Fremen and convey this message? More importantly, how can they visit the empty desert at all with the constant threat of sandworms? These ferocious beasts can stretch 100-meters and “swim” under the surface of the desert, coming up to attack when provoked.
Dune is a complex novel, a wonderful example of what’s now known as “world-building”, and filming it is incredibly difficult. One of the decisions that Villeneuve made to manage this and still offer up the nuance and epic grandeur the story deserves is to break the story into multiple films. That’s right, Dune the movie does not end in the same place that Dune the book does, but leaves the entire latter portion for part 2.
Capturing the essential scenes of the story, this new film adaptation manages to make everything feel simultaneously medieval and futuristic; buildings are massive and featureless, with enormous concrete rooms featuring sparse light sources and towering ceilings. Laser guns and rifles appear, but so do swords and knives, balanced by personal force fields. Spaceships aren’t just big, they’re massive, worlds unto themselves. Seeing all of this on the big screen will unquestionably impress. Dune is a marvelous world that the cinematographer and visual effects team have created.
Sound is also an important part of Dune and, like Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Dunkirk, there are very few moments when it’s truly quiet. Instead, you perpetually feel a level of anxiety that some new threat is just around the corner. The IMAX screening I attended looked fantastic but the sound was a bit too loud and I found myself covering my ears on a few of the loudest crescendos.
With all the dramatic visuals, though, the film is really about Paul, a 15yo boy who will be thrust into a critical role as House Atreides seeks to retain control of Arrakis. He’s more than just a well-trained soldier and diplomat, because of his mother’s Bene Gesserit heritage. It’s possible that he’s the Bene Gesserit messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach, who will be able to see and manipulate time. His awareness will serve him well when trying to establish rapport with Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem). It’s with Stilgar that Paul meets the tough Freman warrior Chani (Zendaya), with whom he falls in love.
There’s a lot to like in this epic translation of a great sci-fi novel to the big screen, and it’s light years ahead of anything David Lynch imagined in his earlier, clumsy cinematic effort. The performances are very good, the sets and exteriors are epic in the best ways of modern cinema, and the story still retains its heart even through great battles and chaos. It’s also complicated. So complicated that viewers unfamiliar with the story are undoubtedly going to end up confused by what’s happening and how things unfold. There’s not really any way to avoid this without making the film even longer, and it’s already over 2 1/2 hours long. My suggestion: Watch it twice. Once in the theater to enjoy the gorgeous visual effects, then a second time, perhaps at home through HBO Max, where it’s being simultaneously released, so you can understand the story nuances.
As for me, I really enjoyed Dune quite a bit. It reinforces my belief that Director Denis Villeneuve is one of the best filmmakers working today, capable of turning just about any complex story into an engaging and exciting cinematic experience. Go see it in the theater if you can. It deserves a big screen to fully envelope you in the wonder and dangers of Arrakis.
Dad At The Movies Note: This is a big, epic movie that will likely entertain audiences of any age. There are fights but most of the drama comes from political machinations. The biggest issue you might experience with younger viewers will be that they have no idea what’s going on, which can be frustrating.