One of the most fascinating things about movies is their ability to transport a viewer to a different time and place, putting them in the shoes of someone whose life they will never have the chance to live. It is an incredible experience when a work of art can successfully achieve this. Books can do this as well but, for me anyway, movies hold more power; probably because of how literal everything they show you becomes. You don’t have to imagine it; it is all right there in front of your eyes.
I have not read Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune or any of its sequels, yet that is exactly how I felt while watching Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until November 21), a visually spectacular adaptation that is the first entry in a planned franchise.
The Dune books (previously adapted into a critical/commercial flop in 1984 and into two fairly interesting Sci-Fi Channel miniseries in 2000 and 2003) have been described as very complex, thus making them challenging to turn into a movie. Just reading a synopsis of them made me feel intimidated. I have no idea how faithful to its source material Dune is, but I never felt lost in all the names, races and intrigues. This is more grounded in character than I expected, making it relatively easy to follow. Villeneuve’s last epic, Blade Runner 2049, blew me away with its imagery. This isn’t as breathtaking, though it is still quite an accomplishment. It was made to be seen on the largest screen possible.
Being a fantasy set far in the future, on a different planet and featuring different races, there is a lot of major information it has to impart. I will try to give a small initial overview of the big stuff.
The Atreides family, led by Duke Leto Atreides, rules the planet Caladan. The Duke is assigned by the Emperor to take over the planet Arrakis, a terribly inhospitable desert world. This planet is vital because it is the source of a valuable substance called Spice. The Atreides’ must learn how to survive in this land, as they deal with the native Fremen and the vicious former rulers of Arrakis, the Harkonnen.
The cast of Dune is suitably massive. The protagonist is Paul Atreides, the Duke’s son, played by Timothée Chalamet. Paul is important not only because he is royalty, but also because of the dreams/premonitions he has been having. They are mostly centered on a Fremen woman (Zendaya, who will likely have a much larger role as the series goes on) and seem to imply that Paul has a great destiny. The cast also includes Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother, who possesses strong psychic abilities, Oscar Isaac as the Duke, Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin as Atreides soldiers, plus Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling and Stellan Skarsgård. There is a lot of talent here. Nobody does career best work; this is not the kind of project that makes that necessary. All they have to do is embody the idea of these characters and let the story/visuals do the heavy lifting.
Between Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and now Dune, Denis Villeneuve has cemented himself as one of the best current visual storytellers. His biggest achievement with Dune is that his images don’t overwhelm the plot. It is a busy story; however, the screenplay (by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) streamlines things enough that I felt like I understood the who, the where and the why as much as I needed to. The beauty and hopelessness of Arrakis, with its vast desert containing horrifying sandworms, essentially becomes its own character. The main purpose here is world-building, which it does well. Still, the characters (especially Paul and Lady Jessica) are always in the forefront, with their actions and the story being directly connected. Due to this, it never comes off as spectacle for its own sake. The visuals are in service of something.
Most of all, I found Dune to be consistently compelling. While a couple aspects of the story come off a little empty, I assume that stuff will be filled in in the sequels Villeneuve will hopefully be able to make. I can’t wait to be transported to Arrakis again.
4¼ out of 5
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides
Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides
Zendaya as Chani
Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho
Josh Brolin as Gurney Hallek
Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Mohiam
Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen
Dave Bautista as Beast Rabban Harkonnen
David Dastmalchian as Piter de Vries
Javier Bardem as Stilgar
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth