Dune looms large in science fiction as a seminal work and there have been several attempts at adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel for both the big and small screen, all with varying degrees of success. Denis Villeneuve’s most recent attempt, however, marks my first real experience with Dune. I haven’t read the book or seen fully any of those previous adaptations. All of my prior knowledge about Dune comes from what I’ve soaked up out of the ether. I knew about the giant sandworms, the flowing spice, and people with blue eyes, but that was pretty much it. Thankfully, Villeneuve has taken this into consideration, and has made a very accessible story out of what has a reputation for being some of the densest sci-fi out there.
Dune begins with a short exposition dump on the importance of spice – a drug necessary for interstellar travel, among other things – and how it’s only found on one planet: Arrakis, an unforgiving desert world. House Atreides has recently been granted control of Arrakis, taking over from the cruel Harkonnens. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his family – Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the mystical order, the Bene Gesserit, and their son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) – arrive to begin overseeing the spice trade. All the while, Paul is grappling with a duel destiny of being both the future of House Atreides and, potentially, the Kwisatz Haderach – a messiah figure of the Bene Gesserit. His mother has been training him for this role, but he’s also been dreaming of a Fremen woman, Zendaya’s Chani, which has him believing his future may actually be found in the desert. Soon, though, House Atreides is betrayed and their control over the spice is challenged by the return of House Harkonnen. This sends Jessica and Paul out into the desert on a grueling journey in search of the only people who can help, the Fremens.
While the above is a lot of information to digest, Dune really does make the influx of characters and their places within the story manageable for newcomers. This is in large part thanks to the well-handled world-building, which comes through in the scenery, costumes, and the performances rather than some clunky, expository voice over. Dune is an immersive movie and it keeps viewers engaged with truly stunning visuals and captivating sound design. That said, Dune also feels like a movie from another era, and it’s deliberate pace might wear on some. There are more similarities between Dune and Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, than there is with say Star Wars or more recent sci-fi blockbusters. Still, Dune is a film ready to transport its audience if they’re willing to settle in for the ride.
And viewers will need to be on board for a ride as well as a wait because what makes Villeneuve’s Dune so accessible is also the most frustrating aspect – it’s only half the story. This gives the sprawling Dune a chance to breathe, but also kneecaps the story’s momentum. Dune is a movie that’s constantly building towards something, and while it does manage to offer some sense of closure for certain plots, it’s largely all preface for a larger story that has yet to unfold. The film’s title card clearly states this is simply Dune: Part One, but it’s still a disservice to only be offered this portion when there’s no guarantee Part Two will ever come. Warner Bros. has hinted that a strong performance on HBO Max (where the movie is debuting along with being in theaters) will be enough to secure a sequel, but that’s little comfort when you’re left wanting to know what happens next. For someone whose first introduction to Dune is this movie, you’re left to either wait and hope or seek out some other means of getting the full story.
The question of whether or not Dune receives a sequel aside, the movie can stand on its own merits. Dune looks epic in every sense of the word, and every frame works to convey not only the massive scope of the world but also the challenges its characters will face. Villeneuve and his cinematographer Greig Fraser have really outdone themselves. Along with its great sound design, Hans Zimmer’s score is excellent and compliments the movie perfectly. The design of the creatures and ships manage to be somewhat familiar while also appearing exotic, giving everything an appropriately other-wordly feel. Most importantly, those sandworms do not disappoint.
Dune also benefits greatly from its superb cast, though some are given a lot more to do than others. Dave Bautista or Javier Bardem, for instance, have roles that are clearly established here only so they can have larger parts in the potential sequel. The same is true of Zendaya’s Chani, who appears mostly in Paul’s visions rather than as a character in her own right. Some roles are small because they just are, but still Dune puts talented actors in these parts, like Josh Brolin as weapons master Gurney Halleck, so that they’ll feel as substantial as the rest. As the lead, Chalamet imbues his Paul with a listlessness that fits his character, but it can make him feel more like an observer than an active participant in his own story; another symptom of Dune being just half a tale, most likely.
Of the cast, the standouts are Ferguson’s Lady Jessica, Momoa’s Duncan Idaho, a swordmaster and mentor to Paul, and Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen. As Jessica, Ferguson has a lot of emotional ground to cover and she does it all magnificently. Momoa is all swagger and charm, and while that’s not a big departure from his previous work, he really makes for the perfect Duncan. And as the villainous Baron, Skarsgård is fantastic, oozing evil (sometime literally) in every one of his too few scenes. Also notable is Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet-Kynes, an impartial judge overseeing the transition of power on Arakkis. She brings a lot of gravitas to what could have been very thankless role and the movie is a lot better for having her in it.
Dune really is a cinematic experience and it deserves to be seen on the big screen with a quality sound system. An HBO Max release is a necessity of the moment, but perhaps it can entice those who wouldn’t venture to a theater to check it out at home. A sequel is contingent, but I can only hope enough people will give Dune: Part One a chance, if only so I can revisit this world Villeneuve has only begun exploring. Dune is a masterful entry into a famed sci-fi saga, and if we’re lucky, it’ll be the first of many returns.