Dune is a movie difficult to evaluate on its own terms; it’s inextricably tied to other cultural ecosystems that make the Dune-watching process hard to do in isolation.
Before any event I’m excited for, I like to employ the practice of ‘obliterating any and all expectations, so that if the bar is zero, then it can only go up from there.’ Doing so generally sucks the joy out of most things I do, but I’m never disappointed. This week, I continued this tradition while watching director Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, a movie that I’d been excited for for years. However, coming out of the theater, I felt almost like I had gone through an event rather than simply witnessed a film.
There are a lot of other factors that make Dune so much more than just a movie. The movie is based off of Frank Herbert’s book, Dune, the best selling science fiction book in history, which also kicked off a sixteen-book long spinoff series and inspired a very dedicated fanbase. Another factor is Dune’s predecessor, David Lynch’s 1984 Dune, which was not only a box-office bomb but was also disowned by the celebrated director. Even before Lynch took a crack at it, the story of Dune had enjoyed a reputation of being “unadaptable” due to its immense scale, confusing terminology, and the technology needed to bring the futuristic elements of the book to the screen. Lastly, but perhaps most significantly, Dune (2021) is only the first part of a two-part series, meaning that the script itself was not written to stand alone in the first place.
In this first part, we follow Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) as he and his family move to a new planet, Arrakis, in order to oversee it. But there’s much more to the story.
With a book as high profile as Dune, creating an adaptation invites a totally new set of challenges. It wouldn’t have sufficed to just copy the events of the book; an adaptation should offer something new to its audience, explore what couldn’t be conveyed just through words and paint a new picture for its viewers.
Given all of these qualifiers, I feel like I can say that I found that Villeneuve’s Dune both preserved the heart and soul of Herbert’s Dune and also beautifully brought a genuinely alien and inhuman world to our screens.
Even without any prior knowledge of the movie, this Dune is clearly Villeneuve’s. His signature style is a harmonious match for the breadth of this story, and his sense of scale pushes the human imagination. The director also flexes his visual storytelling muscles in several memorable moments, including a scene where the usage and significance of a “thumper” device (and that’s all I’ll say) is demonstrated in five seconds to truly awesome rewards. There are also some fantastic moments of tension, which had fans drawing comparisons to Sicario’s “highway scene.” In my theater, people were leaning forward, chin in hands, seemingly unaware that they were being pulled closer to the screen.
After months of retweeting memes about the worm (the sandworm! the Shai-Hulud!), I was still completely blown away the first time I saw it on the big screen. The build up to seeing it explode into view is so incredibly epic that it wasn’t until the film allowed us a respite in Arrakeen, the fictional planet Dune is set on, that I realized that for the first time in my movie-watching career, I had actually been left slack-jawed. If I don’t already sound too much like a ten-year-old boy, let me add that the spaceships, thopters and body shields were also really creative and enormously fun to look at.
The natural world is beautifully conceived and a pleasure to spend time in – the planet looks so real and it’s gorgeous, which buttresses the movie’s themes of nature’s exploitation.
Hans Zimmer’s score here is also one of his best, implementing innovative techniques and blending sounds from all over the world. The way the music weaves and enhances the story makes a good case for the necessity of movie adaptations, as Zimmer’s score creates a novel experience for viewers.
As has been mentioned, Dune is an aesthetically exquisite film, and so is the cast. Timothée Chalamet (the ultimate pretty boy) is fantastic in his lead role and gives Paul Atreides a relatable and almost charming side for a guy literally bred to be the savior of the world. Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) can ask her son to practice mind-control on her, and Chalamet still makes it feel like he’s just a sulky teenager salty about having to wash the dishes. Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s portrayal of Liet Kynes was notable in that I ended up liking her version more than the book’s, and she might have had one of the most badass scenes in the whole movie. Stellan Skarsgård was also a gloriously horrible Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, nearly unrecognizable if not for his distinct voice.
Despite a stacked cast and phenomenal performances, the characters’ interpersonal relationships are the weakest part of the film. While book-readers can go off of the deeper interactions detailed in the book, they just feel surface-level in the film. While not entirely uncompelling, the characters feel more like chess pieces than like real people. Part of this is because the book allows the reader into the secret thoughts of every character, which is almost impossible to do (well) with movies. Characters like Piter de Vries (David Dastmalchian) and Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), who are given less than three minutes screen time total, have rich inner lives and motivations in the book, but end up being two-dimensional pawns in the movie. Nonetheless, the Dune franchise specifically explores themes of dehumanization, so an argument could be made that this upholds that theme.
Villeneuve’s Dune taps into the lifeblood of Herbert’s original novel, following its broad strokes but vividly bringing future worlds to life in the way that only movies can. While the movie may be more accessible to most than the book, it would be a mistake to say that it’s “simpler.” Given the immense talent at hand to create this iteration of Dune, I, for one, am excited to see the payoff following this promising setup. A second part to Dune is set to be released in October of 2023, which was announced on October 26. Let the spice flow!