Dune is a doozy sci-fi picture that manages to be a faithful and engrossing adaptation.
Published on October 22, 2021
Rating 4 /5
Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune is not a story that makes for easy cinema. On the surface, it seems like a simple enough story about colonization and a messiah. When reading the book, however, the themes are vast and intricate as the many details for a war of kingdoms in the year 10,191. Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to direct a film adaptation in the 1970s but his pre-production was so dense it was triple the length of the book. A film adaptation did come in the 1980s from David Lynch but production on that film was so troubled that it’s the one film Lynch regrets most. A miniseries also came about in the 2000s which was faithful in storytelling but limited in budget.
Now we come to the film version from director Denis Villeneuve, the director behind such sci-fi features as Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. Based on his body of work, Denis is probably the only director who could tackle such tricky work and bring it to the screen with the right ambiance. His film embraces all the weirdness, prestige, and dreamlike state brought on by fearing and embracing the future when peering into its dusty horizon.
It helps that this version of Dune feels a bit more mindful than previous interpretations. It treats the caution of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) with an air of understanding. He’s the prince of the House of Atreides, a royalty who resides on the planet Caladan. The House is preparing to take occupation of the planet of Arrakis, rich with spices that are the most valuable resources in the known universe. Arrakis has been previously occupied by the House Harkonnen, a cruel empire dictated by the hideous and greedy Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). Perhaps the people of Arrakis could benefit from the kinder leadership of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac).
An easy mistake such a film could have made was to favor the invaders over the people. Arrakis is occupied by the Fremen, the local tribes of the planet who have managed to survive and live in harmony with the planet’s deadly and gigantic sandworms. The very first scene even describes Arrakis from the perspective of Chain (Zendaya), the woman who haunts Paul’s dreams and will become a part of his future. We see Arrakis first and the colonizers second. Even with the understanding nature of House Atreides, there’s bitterness for their presence. The Duke at one point admonishes the neutral observer of Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) for the Harkonnen leftover being rotted. Liet-Kynes corrects Leto that Arrakis can also be a force to consider as more dangerous than any outsider army and that the Atreides may be sticking their noses where they don’t belong.
Even for only being the first half of the Dune novel (the first of many books in the series), this film doesn’t exactly slow down to deliver exposition. Villeneuve has enough faith in the viewer (and even the fans of the book) to catch onto the plot at play here. There’s little time spent on explaining the magical powers of the Bene Gesserit. However, if you can understand they use their voices as means of controlling others and defending themselves, most audiences should be able to pick up on most of this. The aspects of the bureaucracy in the Spacing Guild and the traditional tribal ways of the Fremen, however, may be a bit denser to understand.
Aside from the intricate collective of characters and politics, there’s the impressive ambiance that becomes the biggest draw of the picture. Villeneuve always delivers on films that feel as beautiful as they are surreal and Dune proves to be just as engrossing visually. Armed with a transcendent score by Hans Zimmer, the special effects feel more environmental and dreamlike than overtly showy. That being said, the sandworms are quite the sight with how towering they appear, consuming sand crawlers and people like the unstoppable forces of the gods the Fremen have come to recognize them as.
Dune is a doozy sci-fi picture that manages to be a faithful and engrossing adaptation. It takes so much of what I’ve loved about the books and places it on screen in the cerebral and weird manner it deserves. While still not Villeneuve’s best work, it is a strong first half of a film that has me eager for more.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.