Within its much talked about hallucinatory strangeness and dense mythology, at its heart (obvious to some, more than others), Dune is, in some part, a political drama. It’s overarching narrative is set into motion by an ill-advised but ambitious transferal of power — an undertaking that brings a terrible cost that seems doomed for defeat. Something similar might be said of the previous attempts to try and bring Frank Herbert’s 1965 colossus of literature to the big screen. Most notably, there’s David Lynch’s 1984 flop, reviled by many (including Lynch himself), yet has grown in admiration by many overtime. But Dune still endures, especially through its distinct world, but also on the strengths of Herbert’s prescient work — its echoes of ravaging oil wars, climate change and vast consequences of human greed. The novel also has its immense influence in how it has shaped the iconography of so many classic science-fiction and fantasy films — most obviously, though not exclusively, Star Wars — all without yielding a classic of its own. Conventional wisdom has long held that Dune is “unfilmable,” that its interlocking parables of colonial oppression, ecological disaster and messianic deliverance are too vast to be contained within the flattening parameters of the big screen.
The brooding new Dune, boldly seeks to reverse that prophecy. With much poise and seat-rattling spectacle, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (who wrote the script with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) draws you into an astonishingly vivid, unnerving vision of the future. If those earlier attempts at Dune were decidedly cursed, this imposing new vision aspires to be the opposite; this time led by an aloof and propheitc Timothée Chalamet as the young savior-to-be Paul Atreides. But the fulfillment of that destiny will have to wait; “Dune: Part One,” as it’s billed onscreen, is the first in a projected two-part adaptation, which means that any assessment of Villeneuve’s achievement must be provisional at best. For now, it’s hard to deny the excitement of feeling swept up in this movie’s great squalls of sand, spice and interplanetary intrigue, realized with a level of overpowering craft to the point where you might have to check your shoes for sand. You may also feel a more qualified sense of admiration for Villeneuve’s efforts to preserve yet streamline the novel’s imaginative essence, to translate Herbert’s heady conceits and arcane nomenclature into something whole.
Whether he succeeds — and I’d say he relatively does — his own meteoric Hollywood ascent has clearly prepared him for the assignment. This isn’t the first time Villeneuve has brought a superb eye for the textural and chromatic nuances of sand, as the Middle-eastern deserts of Incendies, the U.S.-Mexico border zones of Sicario and the Las Vegas ruins of Blade Runner 2049 will attest. And like Blade Runner 2049 and especially Arrival, Dune is an unusually philosophically speculative fiction that ponders the difficulties of language and coexistence. As the movie opens, a hostility has been orchestrated between the warring royal strongholds of Atreides and Harkonnen, led respectively by the noble Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and the grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (a prosthetically transformed Stellan Skarsgård). Dune super-fans will know the rest: By imperial decree, House Harkonnen must relinquish control of the desert planet Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune, which is at once inhospitable to life and a much-coveted source of it. House Atreides will assume control of the planet as well as its rich concentrations of spice, a drug-like substance whose life-extending properties have made it the most prized commodity in the universe.
Notably, these pieces of the narrative are laid out by Chani (Zendaya), one of the Fremen, the thick-skinned, blue-eyed Indigenous people of Arrakis. Long acclimated to the planet’s sweltering heat and deadly giant sandworms, they’ve suffered bitterly under their cruel Harkonnen overlords and have no reason to suspect the Atreides will be any different. Villeneuve’s sympathetic focus on the Fremen feels like an early declaration of principle, a promise that this Dune might radically reframe the story from their perspective. For much of the movie, though, Chani and her people remain fleeting presences, glimpsed only in the gauzy visions of Duke Leto’s son, Paul. And Chalamet, always good at suggesting both youthful callowness and limitless potential, proves to be an inspired choice for the role of a young man who is both a coddled heir and an intriguingly unknown quantity. On the Atreides’ home planet of Caladan, he is trained with affection by his father’s footman, including the brilliant security expert Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), the brawny swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and the skilled weapons teacher Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin). Paul is also a source of pride and anxiety for the Duke, movingly played by Isaac as a leader who longs to do right by his family, his people and the Fremen, even as he suspects that House Atreides might be stepping into a carefully laid trap.
But Paul’s most important mentor is his mother, Lady Jessica (a superb Rebecca Ferguson), a member of a shadowy, enigmatic sisterhood known as the Bene Gesserit for whom Paul poses both a problem and a source of fascination. Led by an imperious Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling), the Bene Gesserit are versed in many skills including “the Voice,” a form of mind control rendered here via menacing vocal distortions that — along with the sound design’s low, ominous rumbles and Hans Zimmer’s massive score — make Dune a symphony for the ears as well as a feast for the eyes. It is, admittedly, a rather monochromatic feast, dryer than it is rich. Much of the palace intrigue plays out in muted tones and symmetrical compositions (all from the great cinematographer Greig Fraser) — part of a rigorously color-controlled aesthetic that extends to Patrice Vermette’s futuro-brutalist production design and Jacqueline West’s slickly utilitarian costumes.
Villeneuve seemingly means to subvert and disrupt the pageantry of it all, something he accomplishes in part by consciously elevating the women in this male-dominated story. Ferguson’s forceful presence in the expanded role of Lady Jessica is one example; another is the gender recasting of Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), Arrakis’ deeply knowledgeable planetologist. It’s Kynes who helps the Atreides adjust to their new desert home, at one point accompanying them to a spice-harvesting site where they get their terrifying first glimpse of a giant sandworm in action, its great mouth swirling open like a raging quicksand vortex. This action sequence and others are handled with controlled assurance, including several scenes of intimate combat performed with form-fitting, blood-concealing energy shields. But as ever, Villeneuve’s true talent is less in the staging of violence than in the queasy anticipation of it; he loves to linger in the looming threat of mayhem, in the tense moments before the hammer comes down. That gift serves him well in Dune, whose plot hinges on encroaching threats, assassination attempts and a series of devastating betrayals that send Paul and Lady Jessica fleeing into the desert where there await even more perils, possibilities and encounters with the Fremen (led by a sly Javier Bardem).
Until the movie slams to an abrupt halt halfway through the events of Herbert’s novel, there’s pleasure in watching this particular fight for the throne play out, though perhaps more pleasure than depth or meaning. To call this Dune a remarkably lucid work is to praise it with very faint hesitance. Perhaps reluctant to alienate the mainstream audience, Villeneuve has brought some rough attempts at levity and ironed out many of the novel’s convolutions, to the likely benefit of easier comprehension but at the expense of some rich, imaginative excess and of the more layered interiority of its characters. The writers have managed the material without fully mastering it. But Villeneuve’s pristine craft goes far: as a visual and visceral experience, Dune is undeniably transporting. As a spectacle for the mind and heart, though, it never quite transcends. And perhaps that’s as it should be, at least at this early stage. With any luck, there will be more to see and much more to think about in Dune: Part Two, the completion of which will depend to some degree on this movie’s box-office. Will Dune conjure enough coin — the spice of the Hollywood realm — to see itself through to completion? It seems pretty likely, as Villeneuve seems to have it in him to possibly break Dune‘s string of memorably catastrophic failures. Dust has long been his truest cinematic habitat, and to dust may he return. Brooding in immense scale and poise, Dune delivers through its arresting worlds of ornate specificity; through basking in a heady, domineering canvas of sand and dust, water and worms.
Dune is playing in Theaters nationwide and is available to stream on HBO Max