In January of 2020, I crafted a list of my most anticipated films of the year — a list that, in retrospect, did not age well given the world’s lack of moviegoing in the months that followed. However, I did make the following comment under my entry for Dune: “Not to be dramatic or anything, but if Dune isn’t one of the best films I’ve ever seen, then I will give up on movies altogether.”
While this was mostly hyperbolic, my level of anticipation remained high throughout Dune’s shuffling release dates over the last year — a wait that, while agonizing, did grant me enough time to finally finish reading Frank Herbert’s classic novel upon which the film is based. Is the film adaptation one of the best films I’ve ever seen? Time will tell, but Dune doubtlessly presents the most engaging, visually and sonically dazzling sci-fi landscape put to screen since director Denis Villeneuve’s last film, Blade Runner: 2049.
Dune transports us centuries into the future in which noble families are engaged in an interplanetary political feud. We are aligned with the Atreides family, an honorable house entrusted to govern over the desert planet Arrakis, the only place in the universe where the precious resource spice is found. Upon arriving on Arrakis, ducal heir Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) finds himself at the center of the conflict between House Atreides, the nefarious House Harkonnen bent on destroying them, and the native Fremen who reside on Arrakis. Now, he must choose whether to become the leader — the savior — he is destined to be.
This conceit — interplanetary conflict, feuding families, a young hero on a desert planet — may sound familiar, but Dune is far too contemplative to be misconstrued as “The Next Star Wars.” The film is not without its moments of action, but at its core, this is a political drama. Villeneuve cross-cuts between character perspectives which slowly reveal the warring strategies at play. The stakes are both great and minute, each action posing real consequences for those it affects. The film has more in common with Game of Thrones than any sci-fi or superhero property — that is, if the show were directed by Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick.
Frank Herbert’s novel is a difficult beast to tame, packed with dense terminology, concepts, and characters within a fully realized futuristic universe. But Villeneuve is in no rush to unpack it all straight away. Like similar directors of his kind, Villeneuve’s signature slow-burn style permeates every frame to create a deliberately paced story that seeps into your skin and infects your brain like the coveted spice that quickly infects Paul’s.
Dune’s greatest strength is its atmosphere, the way it elicits a feeling of foreboding and tension with a lingering shot of a character’s expression or a piece of set design. Working with cinematographer Greig Fraser, Villeneuve incorporates a grand sense of scale that dwarfs the characters within their otherworldly surroundings. Even more immersive than the film’s visuals, though, is its sound design. Certain acoustic effects help bring Herbert’s mythology to life — particularly an ability called “the voice” that Paul’s mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) teaches him over the course of his training. Composer Hans Zimmer further punctuates key scenes with his percussive, propulsive score that feels born out of a time centuries into the future (in fact, Zimmer worked with musicians to create completely new instruments for the film). Comfort level permitting, seeing Dune in a movie theater heightens the sensory experience of the film the way a normal screen cannot.
In addition to its technical qualities, Dune early on promised audiences a showcase of talent, with some of the biggest movie stars we currently have cast in the film. Timothée Chalamet embodies the look and demeanor of Paul, and he lays the groundwork for the character’s eventual rise as a leader. However, he is often overshadowed by his supporting cast. Oscar Isaac captures the regalness and conflict of Duke Leto Atreides, Paul’s father and the leader of their noble house. Rebecca Ferguson is tasked with arguably the most complex character in Lady Jessica, Leto’s concubine whom he never married. Lady Jessica is trained in the art of the Bene Gesserit, a long-line of female embasseries who wield enormous influence over all of the great houses and have sewn legends of a chosen one into the very fabric of societies across the universe. Jessica is a personal favorite character, and Ferguson’s human approach to the role engenders a new layer of complexity and sympathy to the lady of House Atreides.
Villeneuve’s adaptation admirably depicts the first half of the novel (the film’s title card denotes that this is Part I of a planned two-part adaptation), covering ample ground as he builds the world of Arrakis before our eyes. This often consists of heavy exposition that, while necessary, can still feel like dialogue directed right at the audience for our comprehension of what is going on. Villeneuve’s pacing allows us to sit with the concepts we’re being introduced to, but in practicality, a film can only be so long, so certain story beats are inevitably cut out to service the larger whole. This leaves some character work feeling half-baked. Most noticeably, the characters Doctor Yueh (Chang Chen), the Atreides’ physician, and Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewter), Arrakis’ ecologist, don’t receive fully realized arcs the way they do in the novel, which undercuts some of the story’s dramatic beats.
Imagery and sensorial experience does most of the heavy lifting throughout Dune, but it is at times employed to a fault. Even the relationship between Isaac’s Leto and Ferguson’s Lady Jessica is laid out through fleeting moments rather than fleshed-out scenes. Similarly, Zendaya’s Chani, a native of Arrakis, currently exists more as a concept than a character, appearing predominantly through slow-motion glamor shots within vision sequences. This is more a result of where Chani is introduced in the novel itself, so I suspect she will play a much bigger role if (and when, please!) a Part II is officially announced.
As it currently stands, Dune is one half of the story. It possesses a three-act structure in its own right, but Villeneuve has bet on the idea that he will be allowed to adapt the second half and render Dune in full. I admire his conviction in this vision, and I hope he is afforded the opportunity to complete it. Hollywood rewards unique stories like this less and less, but it’s the kind of grand storytelling that ignited my excitement for films in the first place.
UPDATE: Mere hours after posting this, Dune: Part II was officially announced! Cue the countdown now!