Stop me if you've heard this one: There's a desert planet, OK? And on this planet is a teenage boy with a Biblical first name. He doesn't want to be there. It's a world where moisture is currency, rusty mining vehicles share the surface with giant worms, and a tribe of hooded "sandpeople" ambush the unwary. This kid has one hereditary advantage, though: Thanks to a mysterious family history, he has an in with a cult of interstellar sorcerers. He'll build alliances and practice his swordplay, then take on a corrupt empire. Sound familiar?
If you say that's the plot of Star Wars, you are, of course, correct. But it's also the plot of Frank Herbert's Dune, a novel that became an international sensation a decade before Lucas penned his screenplay. Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky came thisclose to shooting a 14-hour film adaptation of Dune, a book he'd never actually read, and his album of storyboards had been making its way around Hollywood throughout the early '70s. Lucas never explicitly admitted the connection, but to claim he was unaware of Herbert's magnum opus would defy credulity. Of course, there were other inspirations, too: Asimov's Foundation, "Doc" Smith's Triplanetary, Flash Gordon serials, The Dam Busters, Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. But Tatooine just is planet Arrakis, aka Dune, only renamed after shooting location Tatouine, Tunisia.
Until a year ago, Dune was probably best known in the non-geek-speaking world as director David Lynch's 1984 noble failure of an epic sci-fi film. The damn thing just doesn't work. But despite that, the novel and the movie's designers contributed so many interesting visual ideas that millions of Dune readers long believed the franchise deserved a third shot. (The second was a pair of Sci-Fi Channel miniseries debuting in 2000 to mixed reviews.) COVID-19 delayed the release of this newest version by a year, but it's available in cinemas and, for a limited time, on HBOMax. I've seen it twice. It's a whopper of a movie, so I wanted to make sure I assessed it carefully before reviewing it in detail.
If you've read the Herbert novel, or seen its 1984 movie or 2000 miniseries adaptations, you'll find no spoilers here. Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) brings his dreamlike vision to a story that's in large part about dreamlike visions. If you're still worried about spoilers, I'll give you the TL:DR version: It's a big, hypnotic epic of a movie, more Arrival than Star Wars, and unless you're easily confused I see no reason to believe you won't enjoy it. You may not love the ending, though. There's a reason the film's on-screen title is "Dune: Part One." Villeneuve and cowriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts elected, wisely it seems to me, to cover only the first three-fifths of the book in this episode. The sequel has since been officially greenlit, and you have only two years to wait for the next installment. In my opinion, Part One finds a way to arrive at a stopping point, though the ultimate fate of Paul Atreides, his mother, his adoptive tribesmen and his arid, hallucinogen-soaked planet remain to be seen.
For those unafraid of mild spoilers, here we go.
The first thing I want to say is Villeneuve does right by the novel, often by ignoring or obscuring parts of it. See, Dune is a killer read that absolutely deserves its prestige as the Lord of the Rings of literary space opera. If you've read one science fiction novel in your life, there's a good chance Dune was it, and rarely do we hear any serious objection to that -- but Dune was definitely written in 1965, by a Tacoma, Washingtonian who'd been breathing the spicy atmosphere of 1965 for both better and worse, and there's no way a 2021 movie can't address that. In the novel, for example, Paul encounters an overworked, underestimated desert culture called the Fremen. The Fremen sometimes call themselves the Ichwan Bedwine, so it's pretty clear Herbert was thinking of both Islamized Bedouin cultures and Arabized tribes like the Berbers. In fact, he probably muddled several African and Sinai cultures after a reading of Lawrence of Arabia, a mistake I'm trying (and possibly failing) to avoid. So here's a novel awash in what I'll call respectful racism. Herbert admires the Fremen for their ability to survive a brutal desert, but ascribes to them an equally brutal code of behavior. In Villeneuve's version, the Fremen are played largely by actors of color, but with no attempt to look specifically northern African.
In the movie as in the book, Herbert's future, roughly 20 millennia from now, is a feudal space opera in which an emperor shares power with dynastic houses (the "Great Houses of the Landsraad"), a women-only religious order (the "Bene Gesserit"), and a guild of once-human creatures whose addiction to spice allows them to transcend the speed of light. It's a lot to explain in 155 minutes, but my wife, a Dune newbie, was able to grasp it in a single viewing. That setup creates another problem, though. See, our hero, Paul, is the son of a duke, Leto of House Atreides, and House Atreides has long been at barely-cold war with another major house, the Harkonnens. The struggle between those colonizers for management of Arrakis is the engine that drives the whole plot. Herbert wants us to know from the outset that the Atreides of planet Caladan are the good guys, and Baron Harkonnen and his sons are just awful, awful, awful. But how do you accomplish that when the Atreides and Harkonnens are basically pursuing the same goal, especially when that goal is the imperialist domination of an all-but-enslaved indigenous tribe via the theft of their ancestral resources? Well, Herbert does what a lot of white, cis-heterosexual writers would've done in 1965: He makes Baron Harkonnen a morbidly obese homosexual with incestuous and pederastic tendencies so we'll abhor him. And that, of course, is a relic of a much crueler time.
So Villeneuve backs off. There's no hint of Harkonnen's sexuality in this film, other than the presence of a translucently clad servant girl. (If you've seen Blade Runner 2049, you know Villeneuve has yet to grasp modern feminism.) The baron's obese, but mostly so there's an excuse for him to use personal VTOL equipment. Unlike Lynch's decidedly Lynchian take on the character, he isn't also oozing from pustulent sores. Oh, we get he's the bad guy, but mostly because Stellan Skarsgård, the actor playing him in a ton of foam rubber and a Jacuzzi full of Pennzoil, growls his lines and rubs his bald head a la Brando's Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Villenueve told Collider, "As much as I deeply love the book, I felt that the baron was flirting very often with caricature. And I tried to bring him a bit more dimension. ... Stellan has something in the eyes. You feel that there’s someone thinking, thinking, thinking." For me, the character works. For some of my friends, not so much.
Watching and rewatching Villeneuve's Dune, I was awed by its scale. We've been told we should see it in IMAX, and maybe that's true. I watched it on a 65" 4K TV with a mid-budget sound bar, and that seemed to do the trick, but there's no question the images are composed for a towering screen. Tiny humans cluster around spaceships the size of Ayers Rock. An interstellar tunnel structure looms in Dune's orbit, competing with a pair of too-close moons, allowing fleets of warships to drift through the Guild stargate like malevolent fleas. When the emperor's envoy arrives on Arrakis to transfer power from the Harkonnens, the proceedings have the scale and ornate beauty of a royal wedding. Every dollar is right there on the screen. Amazingly, Dune '21 cost 35 million fewer dollars than Jungle Cruise. It looks like it cost twice as much.
I worried about Hans Zimmer's score, partly because I'm not a Hans Zimmer superfan and partly because I've grown weary of pseudo-Middle Eastern wailing in place of an imagination, but the sound team has done an exemplary job of blending Zimmer's work with sound effects by Mark Mangini (Mad Max: Fury Road) and linguistics by David Peterson (Game of Thrones). Sound is crucial in Herbet's universe, and this adaptation nails it all.
The visual effects are flawlessly composed and designed to best simplify the story and world-building. They deserve and almost certainly will receive an Academy Award. The iconic sandworm, of which we get only a partial view in this first episode, makes as much sense from a biological standpoint as possible (take that, square-cube law) while also rearing up to form a symbolic eye.
The movie is very well cast, with both Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya believable as the teenagers those characters are in the book. I was surprised to find this movie belongs at least as much to Paul's mother Jessica, played superbly by Rebecca Ferguson, as it does to Paul himself. We learn the extent of his pain and suffering, and the hopes piled on his narrow shoulders, by watching her expressions. It's a smart screenwriting and directorial choice is a movie that risks being the quintessential white male savior cliché.
Look, bottom line (he said thousands of words later), this is an exceptionally well-made film based on a book that all but defines a literary genre. Despite all that, David Lynch swung for the cheap seats only to trip over home plate. It's an easy book to mess up. For half a century it's been branded as unfilmable. Denis Villeneuve filmed it. And now that I'm hearing teenagers have started buying the novel en masse, I'm looking forward to hearing what they think of it, how it chafes against their smarter sociopolitics. If Dune: Part Two is just as good, this will be a more adult Star Wars for a generation of ecological idealists. I hope it continues to inspire in a world that has largely left the novel behind.