People of the world, spice up your life! Denis Villeneuve’s long awaited and highly anticipated Dune delivers on all expectations. Dune is a fully realized adaptation of Frank Herbert’s gargantuan novel. This is a huge and epic sci-fi adventure, and one doesn’t need to be a Dune die-hard to love it. I don’t particularly like the book, and this adaptation deftly synthesizes the world that Herbert created without dumbing it down. Moreover, with the help of contemporary technology and a well-honed hand for speculative filmmaking, Villeneuve’s interpretation succeeds where others fail. This nod to Dune appreciates the author’s magical hand at world building and demonstrates one storyteller’s genuine appreciation for another as Villeneuve and his crew transport audiences to another world. Dune is big screen escapism at its finest: one can hardly imagine a bigger and better cinematic adventure this year.
Dune delivers the futuristic odyssey as the first of a proposed two-part epic. At two-and-a-half hours, the action doesn’t sag for a second. The choice to split Herbert’s novel in two is a smart one, though, since it’s such an intricately plotted and dense work. The main failing of David Lynch’s adaptation is its effort to cram everything into a film with the same running time. Lynch’s film is all exposition, and it’s a nonsensical bore. This Dune, however, packs everything in and yet the action never lets up. Dune is the most adrenaline-pumping thrill ride since Mad Max: Fury Road.
Villeneuve’s film, with the director writing the screenplay with John Spaihts and Arrival’s Eric Roth, picks up the pace while immersing us in Dune’s world. For one, it benefits from rich visuals that illustrate what Herbert describes in words. For example, readers of Dune need to consult a glossary to know what a “gom jabbar” is, whereas viewers of Dune may simply recognize it as a spiky weapon. Film is also more forgiving as a medium when it comes to explanatory dialogue delivered by the right people, especially since Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) often takes the role of pupil. The adaptation makes Dune more accessible than it’s ever been before. Where the book is dense and alienating, the film is open and immediately engaging while being faithful to the story.
Recapping the plot into any Dune review is a fool’s endeavour, but this journey to a galaxy far, far away observes as young Paul grows in stature in the House of Atreides. His father, the Duke (Oscar Isaac), has just received the honour of being steward of the planet Arrakis. The sandy planet, colloquially known as Dune, houses a rare spice that fuels interplanetary travel. The story smartly speaks to the wars that will inevitable wage as oil and gas supplies dwindle in a fossil fuel economy. However, Dune also evokes the generation of youth activists leading the green movement. Like Paul, they rise to the challenge of being leaders. His mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), hails from the matriarchal order of the Bene Gesserit, and instils within Paul her supernatural teachings. Paul’s two equally strong parents lend him a duality that is unique among action heroes.
The House of Atreides
As Paul, Chalamet is perfectly cast in a role that calls upon his introspective brooding and youthful perspective. Chalamet, like Paul, is still summoning his voice and this performance is a forceful step forward. It’s a physically demanding feat, but he imposes a fierce and authoritative presence. Chalamet’s inherent earnestness also lends Paul an air of unshakable optimism. His power in Dune resides in the ability to radiate hope as the family faces one tragedy after another. Where other contemporary Hollywood blockbusters favour darkness, Dune refreshingly favours the light.
As Paul’s parents, Isaac is expectedly suave, cool, and commanding as the Duke. Ferguson, meanwhile, fleshes out a character who is underwritten in other versions. The mother’s pride and anguish make the battles urgent as she watches Paul selflessly risk death repeatedly. The ensemble features a committed cast who prove that no role is too small to draw us into Dune’s enigmatic world. Cameo appearances by Charlotte Rampling and Javier Bardem are especially magnetic.
Dune the ‘Musical’
As the House of Atreides assumes control of Arrakis, they immediately become targets of the Harkonnen, the previous keepers of the spice. From the moment they touch down upon the dune, Paul and his family are targets for traitors. Assassination attempts, raids, and tense altercations inevitably ensue. The Atreides become a house united yet divided as they flee amid a Harkonnen invasion.
A lot happens in Dune—and I mean a lot—but the pace never lets up and the action never sags. The propulsive pacing keeps one’s interest enrapt as one action-packed sequence leads to the next. Villeneuve, in a way, constructs Dune much like a big screen Hollywood musical. In the best musicals, the songs advance the plot while dazzling us in escapist wonder. Dune follows the rhythm of a musical as each thrilling set piece develops Paul’s character, furthers the narrative, and increases the stakes. This is an emotionally engaged and character-driven story as the family fights to not only survive, but also fulfill their duty to ensure the survival of others.
The most thrilling set pieces of Dune are those in which Paul encounters the humongous worms that slither through the sand in search of spice. One scene is a thrilling extravaganza that occurs on the Atreides’ first reconnaissance upon landing on Arrakis. As they survey their land and resources, a worm hones in on a spice harvester. As the Duke, Paul, and their allies rally to save the men working the harvest, the young Atreides has his first taste of the hallucinogenic spice. The intense action pauses sharply—the pacing of Dune is extraordinary—as Paul’s body and mind surrender to the spice, yet become heightened to the possibilities that reside on this new planet. Yet each worm encounter ups the ante. Paul, meanwhile, grows accordingly.
The World of Dune
As with any good musical, too, Dune constructs a land that is rooted in Earthly traits, but wonderfully escapist. Most impressive in Dune is the exceptional attention to detail that goes into crafting the world of Herbert’s adventure. Dune is cinematic world building of the highest order. The fantastic production design, costumes, and visual effects construct a cohesive empire rooted in Herbert’s imagination. The clothes of Dune are both nods to antiquity and perceptive anticipations of the next fall fashion spread. Fabulous ankle-length coats skirt the sand and accentuate Paul’s androgyny. Dune’s fashion sense injects it with a distinct feminine energy with billowing robes and chic scarves that harness Jessica’s authority and her influence on Paul’s destiny. Visually, a new world has never been so fully and richly realized since Lucas conjured Star Wars.
Equally powerful in immersing audiences in Dune’s environment is the intricately layered sound mix that furthers the dual energies that Paul draws from his parents. Moreover, an evocative score by Hans Zimmer inspires a constant sense of awe and wonder. No film has every sounded quite like Dune as Zimmer looks not to the past, but to the future for inspiration. Using an unconventional arsenal of sounds, Zimmer creates a sonic tapestry of tribal warfare that reverberates with the anger of the gods watching the tragedy unfold.
Big Screen Thrill Ride
However, while the visual effects of Dune astonish, they never overwhelm the tale. Villeneuve keeps character at the forefront of Dune with the visuals playing a secondary role. This choice keeps it smarter and fresher than the average blockbuster. Yet the totally bananas interpretation of Herbert’s world unabashedly bears the fruit of an artist geeking out. Dune paya homage to the power of imagination. It’s genuinely thrilling to recognize Villeneuve’s sense of wonder in creating a vision that’s inspired his work.
Beyond the scope, creativity, and technical accomplishment of Dune, Villeneuve delivers a cinematic experience that reminds a viewer why we go to the movies in the first place. It’s an exhilarating adventure from first frame to last. I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing films at the movies until I devoured Dune on the big screen in IMAX with thunderous surround sound. This is the best of Hollywood studio filmmaking: grand entertainment that engages the mind and soothes the soul. I can’t wait for part two.