The year is 10,191. It has been over 8,000 years since I last set foot inside a movie theater—either that, or the pandemic has permanently warped my perception of time. Dune accentuates the oddity of the occasion; to pass the manned concession stand and plunk myself down into a rigid seat buttressed by still-sticky cupholders in an auditorium among strangers evokes visions of a past life half-forgotten: surreal, familiar, yet utterly alien. So too is this return to Arrakis, the brutal desert planet that bested the ambitions of more than one great filmmaker over decades of attempted, abandoned, and imperfect adaptations.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s austere interpretation of the seminal sixties science fiction novel is a beast of grit and grandeur; of obsessive, exacting detail and dizzying scope. If there is a flaw in this new Dune, it originates from author Frank Herbert; Villeneuve brings the book to life with aching, painstaking, let’s-call-it-cathedral reverence. So complete and uncompromising is his vision that the two-and-a-half-hour film covers just half the novel’s story; its conclusion an intermission in place of an ending. Whether or not that compromise pays off, it’s impossible to imagine a more opulent and adherent adaptation—adjust your expectations accordingly.
A beginning is a very delicate time. Know then, that Dune is a peculiar cocktail of science fiction and fantasy; think Game of Thrones on an interplanetary scale. One part hero’s journey, one part political seesaw, steeped equally in the waters of mythology and ecology and shaken well to combine. Set in humanity’s optimistically distant future, the sprawling narrative centers on the noble Atreides clan, who inherit the hotly contested fiefdom of Arrakis—sole source and supplier of the precious spice mélange. Upon assignment, the dutiful Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) uproots his family from their ancestral homeworld, propelling his teenaged son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) toward a greater destiny he has glimpsed only in the form of cryptic, psychic premonitions.
Further complicating the Atreides’ claim are the indigenous, desert-dwelling Fremen people (Zendaya and Javier Bardem feature prominently)—and the planet’s previous steward, the vengeful Baron Vladimir of House Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). Rounding out the ensemble cast are Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides, Jason Momoa as super-solider Duncan Idaho, Josh Brolin as clench-jawed general Gurney Halleck, and Dave Bautista as the vicious “Beast” Rabban Harkonnen. I’ll pause there. There’s no denying the complex geometry of this narrative and its many players, though credit is due to Villeneuve and co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth for economizing exposition.
This laconic, boldly visual approach plays into Villeneuve’s directorial strengths as well; he excels in the arenas of atmosphere and mood, falters in his ability to convey emotional urgency. His oeuvre is a gallery of stark, somber portraits of lonesome women and men dwarfed by an enormous and unyielding environment, fighting for a measure of control. Dune is no different; Villeneuve confidently builds a universe that feels vast and mysterious and unforgiving and enigmatic. This is achieved not only in big moments (cue the sand worms) but in quiet ones as well: a great cylindrical ship suspended in outer space; a native rodent of Arrakis at the crest of a sand dune; the pallid marble and ink-black accents of Baron Harkonnen’s gothic palace. These are the moments in which the film feels most alive.
In these moments, Villeneuve presents himself convincingly as the best science fiction filmmaker working today. With Arrival in 2016, he proved there is still room in the genre for graceful, thematically mature stories. The following year, he rewarded cautious optimism with his worthy follow-up to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In adapting Dune—often described as a “cursed” or “unfilmable” novel—Villeneuve has again achieved the impossible. He does Dune as well as I think Dune can be done; whether Frank Herbert’s opus is truly an essential work of fiction I’m less sure. The novel is epic and enduring but inconsistently entertaining; its implications exciting, yet held always at arm’s length.
Villeneuve seems an ideal evangelist in that respect, but the legacy of his adaptation depends so much on what happens next. If he manages to stick the landing in an equally impressive follow-up, the sum could come to be regarded as a classic of the caliber of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. But if the sequel underwhelms or fails to materialize in a post-pandemic studio environment, Dune Part One will forever be an odd and orphaned thing, perhaps sought out with curiosity commensurate to David Lynch’s flawed but fascinating take.
Dune debuts October 22 in theaters and on HBO Max, but I’d encourage eagerly interested (and vaccinated) individuals to see it in the largest format possible. It may not offer a vital or even a complete story, but it does remind us of the power of the projected image, and the enduring value of the venues that screen them. Even if the story leaves you cold, you’ll still feel the simmering heat of Arrakis, feel the booming bass of Hans Zimmer’s percussive, eclectic score vibrating through the stiff seats, and feel—for a moment—as if the last 8,000 years (or was it just 18 months?) never happened.
At the end of this long drought, Dune is a cinematic baptism. The spigot squeaks, and an exhilarating wellspring of sights and sounds floods the senses. For the parched, the recommendation is unequivocal.