Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune is one of the most important and influential books of science fiction ever written. Its dramatic and complex universe coupled with a fusion of future and fantasy brings new meaning to epic. It might even define the word. But for almost 40 years, adaptations of the work have struggled. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s planned adaption never got off the ground, and David Lynch’s 1984 film is notoriously divisive (even for its own director). The 2000 miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel came closer to success, if only because it gave the dense, sprawling narrative enough breathing room, but it still comes off as unwieldy in many spots.
Now in 2021, we have an adaptation by Denis Villeneuve, who’s already proven he can deliver heavy, atmospheric science fiction epics with style and skill in Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. Will he be the one to finally get it right? If anything, he’s given us a masterpiece of a space opera that stands on its own regardless of its source material.
Villeneuve’s film only covers the first half of the first Dune novel; if you’re not familiar with the book, seeing “Part One” appear under the film’s title card might throw you for a loop. It’s the year 10191, and we open on Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), heir and only son to Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). House Atreides has been commanded by the Emperor of the known universe to become the new stewards of the desert planet Arrakis and the spice it produces. Spice extends life and enables interstellar travel, and Arrakis is its only source. But House Harkonnen, Arrakis’ previous steward, has plans to destroy House Atreides, and Paul soon finds out that his destiny is not his own.
There’s much more to the story of course, but I’m going to leave it there not just because of spoilers but because there is SO much more story to unpack just in the first 30 minutes of the film. And even with Villeneuve’s streamlined and accessible way of presenting the story’s sprawling web of intrigues and connections, that first 30 minutes unfolds in a slow, stumbling, even stilted pace. It’s rough, no question, and it’s not entirely Villeneuve’s fault. This is a book that comes with appendices and a glossary, and even then the first part of it is so thick with exposition that it could induce headaches trying to comprehend it.
But if you can trust Villeneuve’s approach, you will be rewarded with a gorgeous, elegiac melange of drama, action, and humanity. It’s clear that Villeneuve understands what makes the novel run and what keeps it resonant and vital. He allows the story to proceed in a measured, articulate way using a masterful ratio of dialogue, visuals, and music to paint his adaptation. His command of this palette can’t be overstated. His frame is engrossing, even insidious, slowly drawing the viewer in and making us invested in Paul’s story without us even realizing it.
Timothée Chalamet initially comes off as perhaps an odd choice for Paul but ultimately proves to be the correct one. Possibly the only one. His Paul is definitely portrayed as the youngest and least worldly version of the character, and his understated approach to the part can initially come off as aloof. But Chalamet has a stronger understanding of Paul than his initial impression gives, and as the film travels forward, so too does his performance. He approaches the role with a very deliberate and tightened way of expression, slowly allowing more emotion out as Paul’s story progresses.
The dramatis personae of the film in general is quite well cast, and there are a number of memorable performances, especially Rebecca Fergson’s conflicted Lady Jessica and Stellan Skarsgård’s hypnotically grotesque portrayal of Baron Harkonnen. Special note must go to Zendaya, portraying a native of Arrakis named Chani that Paul sees in prophetic dreams. Zendaya is alluring as the symbolic Chani of Paul’s visions, and Villeneuve films her with graceful, characteristic passion. When Paul eventually meets the real Chani in the film’s third act, Zenadya transforms that allure into a grounded charisma that is as quiet as it is confident.
As great as the cast is, however, it is also quite large. We meet at least a couple dozen characters in the first half of the film, and keeping track of them can be a challenge. Because the focus is so squarely on Paul — with a lesser focus on Leto and Jessica — this means that sometimes these characters come and go quickly with large gaps of time between appearances. And if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss simple things. Like names. To be honest, I don’t remember some of the characters even being introduced by name.
Part of this is due to Villeneuve’s pared-down approach to the novel’s notoriously dense volume of lore. The first part of the film is heavy with exposition, which honestly could probably never be avoided, but other than that Villeneuve only gives us as much information as we need to place Paul’s story in context. He distills Herbert’s world down to something highly digestible, which may upset fans loyal to Herbert’s words but allows the film to becoming accessible. His approach gives the film a distinct flow, a distinct feeling of experience without sacrificing the essentials. You may never know, for instance, that David Dastmalchian is playing a character named Piter De Vries, but after one scene you know exactly what kind of character he is and how he relates to the plot.
Villeneuve doesn’t fully rely on his cast to tell the novel’s story, however. A good portion of the film is moved forward solely by audio/visual narration. Much like he showed in Arrival, Villeneuve infuses the film with a kind of understated epic, hinting at the awesome scope of the story and individual scenes with a easy, adept hand. This approach is harmonized with by Hans Zimmer’s music, a sometimes dizzying, almost hallucinogenic score that is capable of quiet contemplation and heavy drama, sometimes at the same time. In some scenes, it actually conveys more emotional weight than the dialogue and performances. Both Villeneuve’s and Zimmer’s talents are brought fully to bear during the film’s action sequences, where this legato approach turns furioso without sacrificing any confidence or grace.
But while those action scenes are part of pivotal plot points, they ultimately make up a small portion of the film, at least in relation to how the film was sold to the general public. For as assured and intriguing as Villeneuve’s film is, its trailers painted a poor picture of what to expect, focusing heavily on the action sequences when the film’s true heart is in the more quiet, emotional moments. This is a space opera, not an action blockbuster, and the truth of the matter might be jarring for those expecting the more Star Wars-esque adventure that the trailers hinted at.
It’s important to see through that, however, because it cannot be stressed enough about what a gorgeous, humanistic film Villeneuve has crafted here. Beyond Dune’s complex and complicated canvas, it’s ultimately a story of identity and determination, of the discovery of hard, emotional truths that can only be learned through experience and painful self-examination. Villeneuve’s powers of storytelling are in full bloom, highlighted by an excellent cast, buoyed by an almost synesthetic score. This is a film that might be hard to step into but quickly becomes impossible to leave.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / A-