This past month, visionary director Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s beloved science-fiction novel “Dune” made its theatrical and streaming debut. Initially intended to debut in November 2020, the film saw three release date changes before finally landing on Oct. 22 of this year.
As troubled as the release of Villeneuve’s film has been, it has been no variation from the 1965 novel’s long and tumultuous history with being brought to the silver screen. In the 1970s, attempts at developing “Dune” into a film were helmed by famed director, Ridley Scott and Alejandro Jorodowsky, the father of the midnight movie. Both director’s attempts at the project struggled to stay under budget and failed to condense the rich world of “Dune” into a digestible runtime. In 1984, the book was successfully brought to film by director David Lynch; though, to say it was done successfully is a bit of an overstatement. Lynch’s film was brutalized by critics and audiences alike, serving as a warning for Hollywood to stay away from the source material for years. In spite of this, Villeneuve’s “Dune” has now made its debut in theaters and on HBO Max. So, does Villeneuve’s “Dune” break the mold or is it another installment in a long chain of ill-fated films?
As a story, “Dune” has served as the inspiration for countless science-fiction novels and films, perhaps most notably, George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga. Like Lucas’ saga, “Dune” is a sprawling space epic. But while “Star Wars” takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, “Dune” takes place in our galaxy, in the year 10,191. The film sees Paul Atriedes (Timothée Chalamet) leave his homeworld of Caladan for the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Paul is the son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), the ruler of Caladan, and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a sister of the Bene Gesserit—a group of constantly-machinating space witches. As such, a quietly conflicted Paul is forced to weigh his fate as the heir to House Atreides as well as the possibility that he is the Kwisatz Haderach, a prophesied messiah to the Bene Gesserit. Simultaneously, House Atreides must adapt to its role as the steward of Arrakis and as the guardian of its chief export, the most valuable commodity in the universe, Melange, colloquially known as spice throughout the novel.
In controlling the production of Melange, a substance used for space travel, the Atreides face off against threats both tangible and unseen. These include, The Harkonnens (The Atreides’ political rivals), The Fremen (Arrakis’ warrior-like natives) and the iconic 400-meter long, desert-dwelling Sandworms. With so many characters and plot points, there is a lot for Villeneuve to adapt from the source material in one film; and as a result, he simply doesn’t. Noticeably absent from House Harkonnen is the character of Feyd-Rautha, Paul’s direct rival from the malevolent former rulers of Arrakis. Also gone (or only vaguely touched upon) are the characterization nuances of Paul’s various teachers. These include the poetic side of his fighting instructor Gurney (Josh Brolin) and the deeper motivations of his physician Dr. Yueh (Chang Chen).
Though the film lacks certain story beats of the book, it certainly makes up for them by delivering in abundance where the novel cannot. No longer does Arrakis exist in the mind’s eye of readers, but now in painterly fashion as the subject of Villeneuve’s film. “Dune” is a movie that truly takes advantage of the cinematic imagery that comes with taking to the silver screen. Every shot is beautifully framed and affluent with scene-setting lighting and color choices. From the glowing, dream-like oranges and yellows of Arrakis, to the cold earthy blues of Caladan, Dune is perhaps the most visually stunning science-fiction film of all time.
Equally important to the film’s success are the performances of Dune’s all-star cast, who bring the world to life, not with loud and bombastic character choices, but with a solemn realness. While Chalamet is the leading actor of the film, it is “Dune”’s leading actress, Ferguson, that steals the show. Ferguson delivers a portrayal of Lady Jessica that is both ladylike and combative, conveying this duality in a believable way. Also popular among audiences is the scene-stealing Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), who is easily the most magnetic character of “Dune.” However, for the most part, the characters of Herbert’s world are straight faced and focused on the conflict around them, a far-cry from the daring, quippy characters who headline the blockbusters of today.
Though “Dune” was advertised as the next action-packed franchise, brimming with disparate, charismatic personalities, that’s not quite what the movie is, and that’s a good thing. Herbert’s “Dune” is not a high-spectacle thrill-ride. It's a character driven work that deals with the complex politics of his intricately detailed world. Rather than distorting Herbert’s vision to appeal to modern audiences, Villeneuve brings “Dune” to screen with a passionate and largely faithful adaptation.
The movie works to please long-time fans of the franchise by dedicating its entire first act to exposition dumps, introducing the language of “Dune” and bringing Herbert’s worldbuilding to screen. This doubles as an entry point for new audiences into the story, and as a whole, the film serves as the launchpad for the sprawling epic to come. Because the movie is so focused on establishing the franchise, it does feel a bit incomplete which makes it difficult to form a full opinion on the series’ first installment—that being the movie’s greatest fault. Regardless, “Dune” does its part as a two-and-a-half hour sales pitch of the franchise and proves that Herbert’s epic can indeed be brought to screen, making it a must-see movie for the year.