Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune is often touted as being the science fiction equivalent to J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. This comparison is often misleading, given there’s actually no thematic or narrative similarities between the two. This statement is more pertinent to the novel’s standing in its genre, as Dune is just as important to science fiction as The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. The impact is so immense that people had heard the words ‘Gollum’, ‘Mordor’ or ‘Frodo’ without ever having read Rings, just as people have heard the words ‘Spice’, ‘Sand Worms’ or ‘Harkonnen’ without having read Dune. As we all know, Tolkein’s opus eventually made its way to screens in spectacular fashion, but a successful adaptation of Herbert’s novel seemed ever elusive. After a long road, Denis Villeneuve may have cracked the code, bringing everything he has to his Dune (2021).
Set in the far reaches of space roughly 8,000 years from now, we are introduced to an imperial empire covering expansive planets all controlled by noble houses. The most valuable destination is a desert planet called Arrakis, which is the only place that ‘Spice’ can be mined (a substance essential for space travel). Up until now, House Harkonnen has been in control of Arrakis, but the emperor has ordered that House Atreides (the sworn enemy of House Harkonnen) take over. The noble Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Issac) accepts this task, despite suspecting The Emperor may secretly be in league with Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) in planning a double-cross. Meanwhile, the Duke’s son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is starting to manifest precognitive abilities with training from his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), thus positioning him to be a messiah in the eyes of the Bene Gesserit religious cult, as well as the natives of Arrakis known as the Fremen.
As you can tell, Dune has been so difficult to adapt due to it’s incredibly dense world-building, as well as its non-traditional story structure. However, it hasn’t been for lack of trying, as Alejandro Jodorowsky famously attempted a near 10 hour long version back in the 1970s. Following that film’s cancellation, David Lynch managed to deliver his interpretation in 1984 with decidedly mixed results. Therefore, the bar hasn’t been set very high (yet expectations are still unbelievably so). Denis Villeneuve has made a choice that is both smart and risky, adapting only the first half of the novel for this film (intending for the sequel to finish the story). This decision has given Villeneuve room to breathe, allowing him to elegantly explain the ins and outs of this complex universe.
There are many things left on the page, but these were deliberate and clever omissions which help to streamline the more bizarre elements. Granted, some of these omissions may make it difficult to follow, as there are key points throughout the narrative where information is either glossed over or underdeveloped. Oddly, it’s hard to say if adding an extra 30 minutes of content would’ve helped, seeing as the pacing is already pretty well balanced. None of the omitted details take away from the enjoyment, as you actually leave the theatre begging for more. This is because all the fleshed out elements are interesting and captivating enough to hold your attention.
With that in mind, this simplification hasn’t sanded down the novel’s thematic complexity, as the characters, script and direction place the deeper thematics at the forefront. There is a sense of social, political and psychological importance hanging over every scene, giving the weirder science fiction tropes an elevated feel. This may be at odds for some hardcore science fiction fans (as they may feel like the film is afraid to embrace the weirdness) but it’s still an effective presentation which successfully brings the story to life. Given this is just one half of a story, ensuring the film has a clear narrative theme isn’t an easy task. Happily, Villeneuve intelligently forecasts the final point of the eventual Part 2 without accidentally spoiling it for the uninitiated.
A science fiction story of this magnitude requires grand spectacle as well as mind-blowing visual effects. With a filmography including Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), there was absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that Villeneuve wouldn’t deliver the goods. The sets, machines or creatures have a true sense of scale and realism, leaving us in awe of almost every frame. Additionally, the haunting score and detailed sound design place you right in the heart of the action, giving you a sensory overload unlike anything you’ve felt in recent memory. Cinema was made for experiences like this, yet we rarely see things like it anymore. Some viewers may feel overwhelmed, but they’ll surely still appreciate the filmmaking artistry on display.
Complimenting Villeneuve’s direction is of course the absolutely stellar cast, which is a who’s who of the biggest stars working today. From a list which includes Timothée Chalamet, Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Issac, Jason Mamoa, Stellan Skarsgård and Zendaya, we are treated to a roster of talented performers who melt into their roles. This is due to non-controversial casting, as each of these performers get to exude all their natural character types without any major curveballs. While this may not give the cast a chance to display their full range, it does give the overall film it’s polished feel, as these are almost exactly the actors you see in your mind when you read the book. What’s more, these heavy hitters clearly respect the material, as they give their all no matter how big or small their inclusion is.
When dealing with a single story chopped into multiple parts, there’s always a discussion regarding whether it was necessary. In the case of Dune it was incredibly necessary, but the question remains whether it’ll be the best choice in the long run. Films like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) or It: Chapter One (2017) are famous examples of the two possible scenarios. The former felt unsatisfying at the time but was positively reevaluated once Part 2 rolled around, whereas the latter was a perfectly fine standalone piece which was tainted by its follow up. Happily, Dune works fantastically as a lead up to a greater story, we just have to hope the sequel follows through on this film’s promise.
Best way to watch it: On the biggest screen available.