Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel ‘Dune’ is largely considered unadaptable due to the complexities of both the world Herbert so delicately constructed and the equally complex story within its boundaries. An abundance of filmmakers have tried to tackle it, including the notorious 1984 film adaptation helmed by David Lynch, which was perhaps unfairly considered a failure on multiple levels.
In 2016, fresh off the release of his mind-bending sci-fi masterpiece, Arrival, Denis Villeneuve was announced to be directing a new feature film adaptation of Dune. Almost a year after his announcement, Villeneuve released the long-awaited Blade Runner 2049, which was critically acclaimed but failed to match that success at the box office. This should have renewed faith that Villeneuve was the man for the job considering his success within the genre adapting existing IP with his own signature style.
Almost 11 months after its original release date, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is finally here and it’s every bit the visual spectacle you might expect from the director’s earlier projects. The question hanging over Dune‘s head, however, is “can it deliver a faithful yet satisfying adaptation of the novel?”
As someone who has not read the novel, it is impossible to answer that question but it is possible to discuss the movie’s many successes from an impartial standpoint.
An important part of this movie’s success relies on translating its story and politics to an audience who may not be familiar with the source material, as Villeneuve makes it clear from the jump that this is only part of the story by dropping a title card that reads: Dune: Part One.
Dune is going to be heralded as a rousing success in the sci-fi genre and as a classic of blockbuster cinema for many years to come. The sheer scope of it from a filmmaking standpoint is more than enough to garner a lot of goodwill from film fans everywhere. It’s a challenging, monumental masterwork from one of the greatest directors working today. Villeneuve manages to assemble a technical team that bring their respective crafts together in a way that feels extremely cohesive. Greig Fraser’s shimmering, hypnotic vistas are a large part of the why the world-building feels so natural. The moment House Atreides sets foot on Arakis, known for its sweeping desert landscapes, the grandiosity of the production makes you feel immediately immersed in the story world. The camera doesn’t glide or shift in the way you might expect, though, it sits wide a lot of the time and allows you to bask in the vastness of what Dune is accomplishing, enraptured by the beauty of the lighting work to create these gorgeous shots.
It’s jaw-dropping work for sure, but that’s fairly unsurprising when you consider that Villeneuve brought back a lot of his frequent collaborators to work on Dune. The level of visual mastery of his films is present in spades once again, every element of production seeping with ambition. Patrice Vermette’s impressively detailed production design keeps the world feeling futuristic and in-keeping with the beauty of these worlds without making them feel too similar to other sci-fi epics. The intricacy of the different structures and the chambers within them is a lovely contrast to the endless expanses of sandy dunes and provides layers to the world-building that would no doubt have been difficult to accomplish.
Villeneuve assembled an all-star cast for this one, their roles differing in size but every one of them feeling important in some way, some of them hinting at bigger things for the second instalment. Timothée Chalamet takes on the role of Paul in his first leading role in a big studio blockbuster after a string of acclaimed performances in independent dramas. He stands out even among a cast this impressive with his emotional maturity and appears to really understand Paul’s anxieties and vulnerabilities to a point where he is able to connect the larger world with the more intimate hero’s journey struggles that he faces. Rebecca Ferguson also shines as Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, a turn which requires her to be simultaneously vulnerable and a point of her strength for her family. That’s not even mentioning the excellent work done by Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Charlotte Rampling, Zendaya, and the list can just go on. The entire ensemble feels perfectly cast and there is no role that feels phoned in, even those with much less screen time than others.
The only potential downside to Dune isn’t even a fault with the film itself: it’s only half the story. Villeneuve is blunt about his intentions to make it a two-part movie from the outset, but the reality of a second instalment isn’t a certainty. It absolutely should be, considering the larger implications that are teased at the end of the first part and it would be a shame to let Villeneuve’s ambitious vision go to waste. Due to this, though, there is a danger of the story feeling a little too glacial and anti-climactic if you aren’t immediately absorbed into the politics and underlying dynamics of the story and its characters. If Part Two never arrives, Dune never really adds up to anything that actualises the momentous war that is promised throughout the story. Paul’s journey is not complete and it should go without saying that Part Two is extremely necessary.
There’s always some concern with these massive sci-fi adaptations that they won’t be accessible to everyone. To Villeneuve’s credit, here lies a stunning, jaw-dropping adaptation of Herbert’s novel that doesn’t feel esoteric; there’s an accessibility to Dune that’s accomplished throughout exposition that doesn’t feel superfluous. We are guided throughout the story by a mix of voiceover and in-world dialogue that sets up the high stakes of the journey and the writers smartly let the flawless technical craft and talented cast do the rest.
The intricate combination between thumping sound design and immaculate visuals with the screenwriters’ abilities to navigate a complex story structure and world proves that the seemingly impossible has been achieved. This is an adaptation of Dune which succeeds on its own merit without relying on the remarkable legacy of the novel to bolster it. Dune thrives due to its peerless cinematic heft that does warrant the comparisons to The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars that have predictably been made upon its release.
Dune has the confidence to be a slow-burning, dizzying epic because it doesn’t underestimate its audience. It stuns, excites, and uses every tool in its arsenal to render you speechless afterwards. The smart move is to allow Villeneuve to make Part Two because Dune: Part One is going to become a sci-fi classic in its own right and the wasted potential would be too much to go without. See this cinematic spectacle for yourself and be part of the experience of one of the best movies of the year so far.