When Denis Villeneuve was confirmed to be making Dune his next movie, I was skeptical like a lot of people. Personally, Frank Herbert’s book did nothing for me, and that’s coming from a sci-fi junkie. There are a bunch of people who consider David Lynch’s adaptation a cult classic, but it was also a gigantic flop that appealed only to a niche audience, and Villeneuve already had one of those on his resume with Blade Runner 2049. In short: the world of Dune has never meant much to me…until now.
My goodness, Dune is everything you could want from a huge, star-powered Hollywood movie event full of spectacle and grandeur. Within moments you’ll forget all about what Lynch did before and be totally wrapped in the spice war that has enveloped the royal House of Atreides. It’s incredible how far Villeneuve has come. Since Prisoners he has been operating on another level, and Dune is the culmination of everything leading up to now. Visually, it’s absolutely breathtaking to behold, from the insect-like crafts to the shimmering shield armor worn by the Atreides, to obviously the desert landscape of Arrakis which appropriately looks like someplace you could be lost forever if you aren’t swallowed up by the mammoth sandworms. Hans Zimmer’s ominous, ethereal score delivers on every level, too.
Villeneuve hasn’t been shy about his desire to turn this into a franchise, establishing Dune as a clear “Part 1”. In doing so, the film is largely set up during the first hour, as Timothee Chalamet embodies Paul Atreides, heir to House Atreides and a boy with a messianic destiny. Visions, some showing death on a massive scale, others of the beautiful blue-eyed Chiani (Zendaya) of the Freemen, occupy his mind. His father, Duke Leo (Oscar Isaac) has been put in charge of the desert planet of Arrakis, where spice is the most valuable commodity in all of the galaxy. But the Fremen who live there reject the violent rule of past outsiders, mostly the warmongering House Harkonnen. Leo hopes to build a lasting partnership with the Fremen and not rule them with an iron fist, but political mechaniations by the Emperor and those within House Harkonnen conspire to doom House Atreides from the start.
Dune wraps itself up in political machinations for a good stretch of its 150+ runtime, but at no point does it ever drag. In part that’s due to the slow evolution of Paul, who grows more confident as things get deadlier for House Atreides. There’s also the mysterious maneuverings of his mother, Lady Jessica, played with enigmatic force by Rebecca Ferguson (Honestly, does anyone do mysterious and dangerous better than her?), and sisters of the Bene Gesserit who have big plans for Paul…assuming he can survive. Action is initially sprinkled in by measured doses, most of it by the movie’s most exciting character, Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho, the swashbuckling hero of House Atreides. Momoa’s big personality leaps off the screen, and he has by far the most physical moments in all of the film, often battling hordes of Harkonnen solo. Josh Brolin as Paul’s grizzled mentor Gurney Hallack also gets his share of excitement, and I was happy to see veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson getting quite a lot to do as mentat Thufir Hawat.
Other prominent actors get only a few minutes to shine, with the promise of much greater exposure if the sequel happens. Zendaya’s Chani is one whose presence looms large, although she is rarely seen until the final act. The same goes for Javier Bardem as Fremen leader Stilgar, although he makes an impression. Too bad we don’t see more of Stellan Skarsgard and Dave Bautista in their Harkonnen roles, as the villains are thinly-drawn in this first chapter.
Of course, the film really lives and dies on Chalamet’s performance, though. I’m not one of those who necessarily subscribe to him as this great actor, but I like him when taking on characters that must grow into power. He’s exceptionally good at depicting Paul’s hesitancy to embrace his future, while becoming the leader that he is meant to be.
Dune is Star Wars-level space drama and easily one of the best movies of the year. My biggest complaint is that I wanted more, and I wanted more quickly. As long as Villeneuve is involved, Dune is the must-see sci-fi on the big screen right now, and you’ll want to see it on the biggest screen possible.
Dune opens in theaters and HBO Max on October 22nd.