Denis Villeneuve’s magnificent adaptation of a classic space opera
A magnificent adaptation of half a novel, Dune slakes sci-fi thirst as much as it parches. Frank Herbert’s seminal six-book series launched with 1965’s award-winning first installment that Denis Villeneuve here semi-adapts. And his targeted treatment of only a section of the dense material—a political, ecological, and religious treatise on nothing less than the very future of humanity—is deftly faithful. It’s also filmmaking of the highest order, with a richly talented director at the height of his powers summoning visceral, terrifyingly awesome images of the human condition writ large. Hardcore fans will thrill to the opulent reverence. Casual viewers, though dazzled, should brace for world-building overload.
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DUNE ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Denis Villenueve
Written by: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem
Running time: 166 mins
Get ready for the Landsraad, Mentats, crysknives, stillsuits, the weirding way, the gom jabbar, planets like Giedi Prime and Salusa Secondus, Imperial Sardaukar troops, and the Kwisatz Haderach. Intimidated? That’s understandable, and part of Villeneuve’s genius as a storyteller is to throttle the book’s firehose of information into more or less digestible, yet highly dramatic and deeply human, moments. Still confused? Don’t worry: the book has a glossary.
In the year 10191, galactic feudal houses vie for resources, chief among them the spice mélange that literally fuels interstellar transportation. The precious substance also doubles as a consciousness-expanding hallucinogen that extends life and increases health. And it comes from a single planet: Arrakis, an inhospitable desert world where teeth-studded sandworms measuring as long as 400 meters threaten every form of life.
House Harkonnen rules over Arrakis, but the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV decides to rout them and bring in House Atreides from the ocean planet Caladan. Its tough but judicious leader, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), is a rising political star and potential threat, so the Emperor secretly schemes with Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) to bring him down. The reassignment is a trap. Leto senses it, but can’t pass up the opportunity to oversee the wildly lucrative mining industry that effectively controls the universe.
He also feels that his secret weapon is the untapped potential of the Fremen, the native population mostly hidden from view who know how to live with the sandworms and thrive on Arrakis. Ally with them, win their trust, and he might just be able to thwart any of the Emperor’s machinations. “Desert power,” Leto tells his teenage son Paul (Timothée Chalamet).
Paul is his bright, sober child with Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Leto’s concubine and a member of an ancient all-female religious sect called the Bene Gesserit. These witchy devout have extrasensory powers and keen foresight, which have made them masters of manipulation, quietly pulling political strings as they measure out machinations over centuries. But Lady Jessica put a wrinkle in their plans when she willfully gave Duke Leto a son instead of the daughter that the Bene Gesserit traditionally require. And in doing so, she’s created a man that might also have the powerful abilities of the ancient sorceresses.
As such, the Fremen also consider him a possible messiah. Blame the Bene Gesserit for that, too, since they’ve spent thousands of years seeding countless worlds with such prophecies—yet another way of controlling populations. So Paul now finds himself in a pincer hold of destiny: assigned to a planet he doesn’t understand, with powers he shouldn’t have been given, forced to fight for his life in a political maelstrom that threatens his entire family. And now an entire race turns its eyes to him as their possible savior.
Dune’s status as science fiction is perfunctory, since Herbert is much more of a mythmaker than he is a speculative engineer of technology’s possibilities. He uses distant starscapes and mammoth civilizations as set dressing for essentially medieval court intrigue. It’s a staggeringly ambitious work of imagination that yet also seems trapped in a very dated 20th-century worldview. The feudal houses are European states, spice represents oil, the Fremen are Arabs, and Paul is a galactic Lawrence of Arabia. As foreign as the worlds might be, the whole project feels very familiar.
Still, his saga of warring tribes, realpolitik compromises, and unexpected treachery show a moebius strip of human impulses and religious fervor that, time and again, cause precious blood and treasure to be spilled in the name of scarce commodities. And, most compellingly, Villeneuve doesn’t let that macro aspect capsize the heart of the story: Lady Jessica and her devotion to Paul. She’s a mother whose love for a man yielded him a son, and that decision ends up bringing her, and him, conflicted emotions and profound pain.
That said, Villeneuve’s Dune doesn’t lack for levity—a rare quality for the filmmaker of such grippingly dour films as Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049. Casting goes a long way, especially with broheim it-men like Josh Brolin as court tutor Gurney Halleck and Jason Momoa as military muscle Duncan Idaho. “Thank you for the gift of your body’s moisture,” says Idaho diplomatically when Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) offers up a sign of respect by spitting in front of a baffled Duke Leto.
Isaac lends elegiac heft as the compromised Leto, while Skarsgard’s creepy Baron Harkonnen, with his pallid complexion and overindulged folds of flesh, feels flat, mutterinmg cryptic calculations like a space-age Colonel Kurtz. Zendaya’s in here, too, but more as Paul’s mysterious muse and dreamlike vision whose appearance is brief and significance is unexplained.
But the real star of Dune is the production itself: wan colors dappling chiaroscuro palaces of stone; the heavy gears of eleventh-millennium mining machinery; the fluttering dragonfly wings of ornithopters; a soundtrack that interweaves chanting hymns with slithering bass-heavy drones. And, most of all, the thunderous arrival of sandworms as their cavernous mouths collapse the ground underneath. The entire film is a cinematic revelation that commands the senses—and hopefully inspires a sequel that will actually finish the book.