If there was anyone who could take the denseness and darkness of Frank Herbert’s legendary sci-fi novel series to the big screen, it’d have to be director Denis Villeneuve. With his penchant for atmospheric and introspective science fiction such as Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, he’s the easiest choice for such an adaptation that once overwhelmed David Lynch to the point of wanting his name taken off the 1984 film. Sure enough, Villeneuve’s take on Dune is apt, chilling, and brimming with ambiance. It delivers mostly on how I expected him to treat the material and there’s an essence of both contentment and longing for what his film presents.
Co-writing the film as well, Villeneuve chooses to make the focus more on the planet of Arrakis rather than the tragic fall of planets who plunder this dusty rock for its invaluable spice. Chani (Zendaya) speaks the first words of the film by describing her world as one ravaged by invaders. Her tribal native people of the Fremen have been fighting a decades-long war with the ruthless Harkonnen Empire, who were granted the planet of Arrakis by the Spacing Guild. The time of the House of Harkonnen is up, however, as the more refined royalty of the House of Atreides prepares to make their claim on the planet’s resources. The question remains of just how the Atreides will respond to Arrakis with its planet and resources.
One Atreides deeply concerned about their stay is the young prince of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). He has been having dreams about Arrakis that seem to be premonitions. He can sense the presence of the Chani. He witnesses the death of his best friend Duncan (Jason Momoa). There is much death and revolution that awaits him in the future. Such dreams weigh heavy on his mind where he is already expected to wield great power with his voice based on the teachings of his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and battle strategy with the grump Gurney (Josh Brolin). It’s a lot to take in for a prince who will soon find himself thrown into a war of the Atreides, Harkonnen, and Fremen.
The story mostly follows the book but takes some interesting liberties with staging characters. Doctor Yueh (Chang Chen) is given a more aloof nature to make his great betrayal more surprising rather than blatant from the start. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) has been showcased sparingly in the marketing and remains so in the film. His presence as a floating fat man of great power and disgust is treated as a dark figure, his voice reverberating in his handful of scenes where he ascends from a bath of black or stuffs his face with dinner.
There’s a looming and cold sense of an epic adventure presented in Villeneuve’s film that matches the operatic and pathos of the book. The special effects are fantastic but restrained enough so they don’t feel too showy. Take, for example, the most exciting of scenes where an observing Duke Atreides (Oscar Isaac) makes the controversial choice to risk his life to save a mining crawler crew under threat of being swallowed by the gigantic sandworms of Arrakis. We only see the worm through waves in the sand but can sense something dangerous is coming. The mere sinking of the sand is enough to send shivers down the spine that the rescue operation needs to finish quickly. By the time the worm finally consumes the crawler, it’s a fantastically chilling sight as the monstrous creature easily swallows the metal structure in its dozens of rows of hundreds of teeth.
The cinematography and staging are beautiful. Everything from the vast scapes of Arrakis to the decadence of Caladan is astounding to witness. There’s restraint with the incredible technology (such as the flawless adaptation of the body shields) where all the visuals feel more like a part of the environment rather than a showcase of how grand the computer graphics appear. There’s a great sequence where the first ships of Caladan depart for Arrakis. Paul is not part of this party and wanders Caladan’s marshy wilderness with ships lifting off in the background. He spends this time feeling the watery dirt of his land, feeling as though this may be the last time he feels such a part of his world.
The score by Hans Zimmer keeps a few of the familiar otherworldly elements of the previous film’s score by Toto but the Middle Eastern inspirations of the book are more embraced to give the soundtrack an original theme. It’s a score perfectly suited for embracing Paul’s many visions as well as the intense and epic battles that take place on Arrakis.
As you may have guessed from the running time and some reports, this film is only half of the first book. It cuts off right about at the point I would expect, where a great deal of time has to pass after the fall of the House of Atreides. Even with this extra time with the text, however, it should be noted that Dune won’t exactly slow down for newcomers. Watching the film as a fan of the books has led me to question just how much of such a story will resonate for those without foreknowledge of the conspiring Spacing Guild, the magic of the Bene Gesserit, the traditions of the Fremen, or the flexible nature of the Sardaukar armies (little of this is explained in greater detail). That being said, I did appreciate the framing of characters such as Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista) and Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) who have a surprising presence for their secondary roles.
Dune is every bit the mesmerizing and cerebral science fiction that only director Denis Villeneuve could deliver so well. It has more than enough faith in the material to take it slow but also enough gravitas to make its many intense moments of epic action gleam. Parts of me wish that other aspects were more accessible for those who haven’t read the book but, at the same time, I adore the care placed in this adaptation that rarely wastes its time with the towering exposition of the book. The result is one of the few films in the past few years that has made me appreciative there’s more on the way, where the signal for the End of Part 1 makes me all the eager for Part 2.