Dune arrives in theaters from burgeoning auteur Denis Villeneuve, the third attempt to bring to life what some have called an “unfilmable” novel. It’s glorious in its scope, grandeur, and production value, truly meant to be seen on the biggest screen possible versus whatever device you’ve downloaded HBO Max on. But while Villeneuve succeeds in forming a coherent narrative out of the complex Dune mythos, it’s uncertain who this $165 million mega film is meant for.
In Dune, Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is the heir to the Atreides family, one of the great families of the galactic empire. His father Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is well-respected amongst the galactic oligarchs, and it’s this wide respect fueling the jealousy of an unseen emperor. While the Duke is generating respect amongst his peers, another great house — the Harkonnens, led by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsård) — is quickly outpacing the emperor in wealth through their control of Arrakis. Arrakis is a lethal desert-like planet, rich in spice that’s vital to galactic trade.
The emperor hatches a plot to pit the Harkonnen’s and the Atreides against one another, by taking Arrakis from the Harkonnens and giving it to Duke Atreides and his family. Thus, the Atreides must leave their lush, Scottland-like world and make their way to the barren, sun-drenched Arrakis. Paul’s mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of an all-female religious order the Bene Gesserit (think Jedi), has raised him to tap into the powers of her order. Given his parentage, Paul may or may not be a long-heraled messianic figure to the people of Arrakis, and potentially destined to alter the balance of power in the galaxy.
Whew! If that sounds like a lot, it’s just one reason why some have claimed the novel is unfilmable. But this version of Dune does a superb job of explaining the plot without too many forced exposition dumps. The film explains all of this pretty well — with the exception of the value of the spice, an important concept in the novel but glossed over pretty quickly here. By a half-hour into the movie, we’re on our way.
(It’s worth noting here that Dune only covers about one-half of the book; the title card even says “Dune, Part One,” promising that we’re only going to get half the story.)
The novel “Dune” was released in 1965 and inspired countless sci-fi epics that came after, including much of Star Wars. It’s fitting then that Villeneuve delivers a brilliantly filmed epic with beautiful cinematography and a wonderful score, finally giving long-time fans of the book series a film they can stake a claim to. In this age of action movies where you can feel the green screen in every shot, Dune feels lived in. The f/x is gripping and feels practical, even tangible. You can almost feel the scorching heat, the sand beneath your toes just getting everywhere.
But on the heels of Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve’s previous work, the movie also feels familiar at many points. From the set design to the design of the ships, and even some of the action, there’s a sense of repetition that makes Dune slightly less groundbreaking, but instead more like an evolution or expansion of that film.
Dune has an exceptional cast, as Chalamet, Isaac, Ferguson, and Skarsgård are joined by Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, Jason Mamoa, and Zendaya (in a glorified cameo). It’s a shame they don’t have much to do. They all turn in solid, if unspectacular performances, particularly Mamoa and Ferguson. Mamoa looks like he’s having fun, seemingly the only actor here who is. Ferguson commands the strongest scenes in the movie, though her angst and anguish earlier in the film border on melodramatic. As for Isaac and Brolin, they’re in the movie, which is about all there is to say.
Aside from two moments with Paul — one at the beginning of the film and one at the very end — it’s difficult to find anyone to root for or empathize with. It’s a shame that one of the most moving moments of the film comes nearly 2 hours 45 minutes in; by the time Zendays says “this is only the beginning,” immediately before the credits roll, it’s hard not to think, really?