A successful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s critically acclaimed 1965 science-fiction novel Dune has been a long time coming, and many have tried and failed to make this happen due to the various challenges that the source material presents. However, it’s finally become a reality at the hands of Denis Villeneuve.
Herbert’s novel is dense, introducing readers to a futuristic, complex interstellar society and exploring its technology, religion, politics, and ecology. The book and its subsequent stories are a captivating experience, something that served as inspiration for many future science-fiction projects that would follow in the years to come.
Two of the most important things that Villeneuve accomplished right out of the gate were finding the optimal way in which to effectively tell such an intricate story while also crafting a look and feel for the film that would appeal to longtime book fans and new audiences alike.
Dune isn’t the first large scale story to play out on the big screen, and it most definitely won’t be the last. However, what makes it truly stand out is the fact that the experience of watching it feels just as epic and groundbreaking as the pages of the story from whence it came. This is no simple feat, because it’s far too easy for a blockbuster to oversell and overdramatize itself, trying and failing to command an air of importance that hasn’t been earned. With Villeneuve’s Dune, the film is a perfect storm of sounds, visuals, actors, and script, hitting each note with a harmony that effectively keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.
The film takes a careful, balanced approach to the sprawling world of Herbert’s Dune, uncovering a path that is both satisfying for those that have read the book and simultaneously accessible for newcomers. In trying to set the stage for the movie, it would be easy to get lost in narrative exposition, something that David Lynch’s 1984 version of the film unfortunately relied heavily on. Villeneuve opted not to pursue introductory storytelling and excessive amounts of voiceover, choosing to let the characters and their present actions drive the story, revealing necessary tidbits of lore at more opportune, intuitive times instead.
Dune remains very faithful to the book and its original structure, following key events and remaining true to its characters within the constraints of a two-and-a-half-hour runtime. And while I would have loved to have seen smaller scenes from the novel, like the tension-filled dinner on Arrakis hosted by the Atreides and a glimpse of the luscious Arrakeen Conservatory, additions like this would have sent the length sprawling far past its limits — keeping in mind Dune already only covers the first half of the book! With respect to pacing, the film feels as if it’s innately aware of the fine line between too little and too much, and ultimately it succeeds in finding the optimal way to present this tale.
The planet of Arrakis is vast, sprawling, and unforgiving, and Villeneuve and his team brought it to life in unthinkable ways. Dune‘s cinematography is breathtaking and evocative, with beautiful wide shots, careful close ups, and a brilliant use of light. Paired with Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, which feels like it crawled straight out of the pages of Herbert’s novel, the film is truly a wholly immersive and mesmerizing experience.
Design choices large and small across the board heavily contributed to the visual success of the movie, such as the insect-like design of the ornithopters, the cavernous and terrifying look of the sandworms, the life-preserving stillsuits, the wardrobes in general, and the energy-filled, colorful representation of shields during battle.
While Dune is an accomplished visual and auditory feast, the story is carried by the talents of the actors that drive it. With a wide host of important players to be introduced, the film is adept at utilizing every minute of its runtime to make the most of its characters, effectively establishing them and allowing audiences to build necessary emotional connections.
Leading House Atreides is the formidable Duke Leto, portrayed by a man who’s no stranger to epic space films — Oscar Isaac. However, gone is the headstrong, boyish charm of Star Wars’ Poe Dameron. Leto carries the weight of the world of his shoulders, revolving between his duties as a Duke and his love for his family. Isaac naturally slips into this role with an air of regality and honor, portraying Duke Leto just as he was meant to be.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Ferguson is Lady Jessica, the Bene Gesserit concubine of Duke Leto. She’s caught between two worlds — that of her deeply rooted training and (like Leto) her commitment to her family. Ferguson balances Jessica’s demeanor as such, proving to be a foundation for the film as a strong, enigmatic female lead.
Dune wouldn’t be Dune without its central hero, Paul Atreides, a boy born of prophecy and primed for greatness. When he’s introduced in the book, Paul is but 15 years old, still young, but also agile and tough, thanks to the training of his mentors. However, as he broaches on his destiny and begins to unlock his consciousness to its full potential, Paul unravels, becoming wise beyond his years with the burden of his knowledge. Basically, he’s not a simple character to portray by any means, but Timothée Chalamet has proven himself to be — beyond a shadow of doubt — the perfect casting choice for Paul Atreides. Chalamet taps into the deep, complex facets of Paul, bringing him to life with startling accuracy.
There was an incredible amount of talent across the board in this film, and some other individual performances that bear recognition include Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, who fully embodied the renowned skills and infectious personality of his character, and Josh Brolin as the gruff Gurney Halleck, though I’d be remiss not to mention the missed opportunity to see him crooning a ballad over the strings of his baliset. Villeneuve’s Baron Harkonnen (thankfully) veered off entirely from the unfortunate caricature that he was reduced to in the 1984 film, allowing Stellan Skarsgård to give a dark, unsettling performance instead.
Finally, the decision to gender-swap such an important character from the novel — the planetary ecologist and secret leader of the Fremen, Kynes — was brilliant, giving the film another robust woman at its forefront by way of Sharon Duncan-Brewster.
Overall, Villeneuve and the talented team behind Dune have accomplished the unthinkable, finally paying tribute to one of the most important sci-fi novels of all time with a faithful, worthy, and entirely epic adaptation. If the already-planned sequel that covers the second half of the book isn’t officially green lit by Warner Bros. in the near future, it would be shocking (and genuinely disappointing) given what a triumphant achievement in filmmaking Dune is.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. (But I can promise you that your television screen won’t do this masterpiece justice, so see it in theaters at all costs, if you can!)