“When you have lived with prophecy so long, the moment of revelation is a shock,” says a character in Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s foundational 1965 sci-fi novel Dune. A native of the desert planet where much of the film and novel are set—Arrakis, aka Dune—she is commenting on how Dune’s new ruling family seems to be falling in line with the messiah prophecy her people, the Fremen, have long held dear. But she might as well be talking about the film itself. For decades, people have been trying to put on film Herbert’s supposedly “unfilmable” source material, which contains a galaxy of information—a thick glossary of vocabulary and concepts, a heavily omniscient narrative (any given scene may be interrupted by multiple characters’ thoughts), a thicket of tangents, intricate politics and attendant betrayals, ethnographies of various cultures, and a messiah character, Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet here) whose rise to prominence means different things to different groups within the book, politically and religiously. His existence is said to bridge space and time, past and future. He has the entire universe on his shoulders, and Herbert’s universe is a big universe indeed; it reportedly took him five years to research and write the original Dune novel.
For those who don’t know a Kwisatz Haderach from a hole in the wall, this may already seem like too much. At screenings of David Lynch’s 1984 stab at Dune, a glossary was distributed to help orient theatergoers. That they were expected to consult the distributed sheets in the dark underlines the exercise in futility. Lynch’s Dune was high-profile (Sting was in it!) and heavily hyped, and then consequently disappointed at the box office. (Alternately silent-movie severe and laughably messy, with the effects alone showing he bit off more than probably anyone could chew at that point in technology, the movie is nonetheless a wacky good time). Beloved Chilean-French art-film maverick Alejandro Jodorowsky famously failed at adapting Dune in the ’70s (his aborted production, which was to feature design by Alien’s H.R. Giger and acting from Salvador Dalí, was immortalized in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune). The Sci Fi channel has adapted Dune and other books in Herbert’s series, though under budgetary constraints typical of that network’s productions.
In short, Dune has never been done right on film, and yet the belief in its possibility has endured. Every time, it’s been, “Maybe this time.” Well, this time is in fact the time.
Villeneuve’s Dune—subtitled Part 1, as it covers roughly half of Herbert’s first Dune book—is, above all else, elegant. The director has carved a coherent, albeit still complicated, story out of an unwieldy slab of imagination. Expository sequences, like the introduction of the antagonist Baron Harkonnen, that went on and on for pages in Herbert’s book, are far shorter in Villeneuve’s impressive distillation (courtesy of a script by him and co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth). With a story like this, which traces the House Atreides’s doomed transition from their homeland of Caladan (which resembles Earth) to running Arrakis and how Paul’s multiple birthrights fit in, one can easily get tangled in details. If anything, Villeneuve plays a little fast and loose—while watching, I had to wonder if I’d be drowning in sand were I not already intimately familiar with Dune. I can see that what Villeneuve rushes past and asks you to accept—for example, a human computer or mentat named Thufir Hawat (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson) whose eyes go all white when he performs his calculations—might be indecipherable to the point of distraction. I’m not a big fan of movies or TV shows that require prior research for comprehension (a big issue I had with Game of Thrones), and I understand that the unfamiliar may wish they had remained unfamiliar upon entering Villeneuve’s world. There are a lot of big asks here. Herbert’s story is simplified but not dumbed down.
But there’s a lot to love here, most especially the imagery. Villeneuve shuffles renderings of Herbert’s ideas on and off screen with a certain, “Hey look at this!” glee. A remote-controlled assassination device called a hunter seeker looks like a flying shrimp. You feel the wall-shaking presence of a sandworm, a giant creature on Arrakis that could use a megalodon as a toothpick. The Atreides’ space travel vessels are all brutalist marvels. The aircraft used on Arrakis—the ornithopter—has four sets of wings that move like a dragonfly’s. There’s an overhead shot of a few thopters flying over the dune-strewn sands of Arrakis that I want to see again, in the way I like to revisit paintings. This is a routinely eye-popping movie, which is no small feat considering that the color palate on Arrakis is essentially a spectrum of beige. Well-known mycophile/psychonaut Paul Stamets claimed Herbert told him that psilocybin had a considerable influence on Dune—most prominently in its spice, a psychoactive substance mined only on Arrakis that allows for advanced cognition and distant space travel. As if an extension of Terence McKenna’s “stoned ape” theory of evolution, which posits that magic mushrooms were responsible for the evolutionary leap from homo erectus to homo sapiens, Herbert’s spice is an even stronger consciousness-expanding substance. And so from a purely visual perspective, Villeneuve makes good on Dune’s legacy. This movie is a trip, and not only that, it’s a good one.
There’s a heightened sense of social consciousness in this Dune, as well, though Villeneuve can only do so much with his source material. After all, this is largely the story of Paul making good on his privilege as a future ruler and God figure. He is the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac at his zaddiest—a total Atre-zaddy, if you will) and the duke’s concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who’s part of the all-women religious order of the Bene Gesserit. Per Bene Gesserit practice, Jessica was expected to give birth to a girl (which they can control), but instead gave her duke a son. There’s a Bene Gesserit prophecy that a boy child born into the order will become the uniquely gifted Kwisatz Haderach, and Paul seems headed in that direction. He also eventually insinuates himself with the Arrakis natives, the Fremen, and rises up to lead them. He is effectively better at being a Bene Gesserit than the women that comprise the order, and better at being a native than the Fremen. That Paul has historically been played by white men, including here, seems not at all a coincidence. One could make the argument that the Bene Gesserit have the ultimate power of this universe, but they’re largely relegated to the narrative shadows as Dune’s story favors the more earthly concerns of, largely, a cast of men. (That said, Charlotte Rampling is terrifying here as the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother. Imagine the worst nun you’ve ever encountered; now imagine her meaner sister avenging her death. An icon in the making, she’s gifted incredibly withering lines like, “Goodbye young human. I hope you live.”)
Still, there’s at least a little nudging of optics by Villeneuve. The movie opens with a monologue from Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen who populates Paul’s dreams in advance of their meeting. “My planet Arakkis is so beautiful when the sun is low,” are the first words she speaks at the start of the movie, in stunning contrast to the way Arrakis is spoken about by so many of its non-native characters. Jessica and weapons master Gurney Halleck both refer to Arrakis in the book as “this hell planet,” and Leto calls it “a hell I’ve reached before death.” The perspective has always zeroed in on Dune’s inhospitable nature, that no one would ever elect to go there were it not for the import of the spice (he who controls the spice controls the universe, the saying goes). But Chani, right up front, provides us with a different lens. The outsiders who mine the spice “ravage our lands in front of our eyes,” she says. “Their cruelty to my people is all I’ve known.” In describing the Imperial transition of Arrakis from the House Harkonnen to Atreides, Chani wonders: “Why did the emperor choose this path, and who will our next oppressors be?” As crucial as this framing is, Chani is somewhat inconsequential to the overall narrative here, though she’d be more prominently featured in the proposed second movie, as the section of the book that would cover is much more focused on Paul’s dealings with the Fremen. Zendaya has maybe 15 minutes of screen time in total.
About two-thirds of the way into this Dune, a major invasion occurs that leaves the House Atreides under siege. If much of the movie leading up to that point feels like setup (and I really don’t think that it does, but I know this is a common complaint), then this burst of action is certainly the payoff. Then the action recedes a bit and Dune settles into something more bleak and contemplative. The pacing feels irregular, not quite what we expect from a tentpole whose trajectory (typically on the backs of flying superheroes) goes up-up-and-away until the credits roll. Dune’s rhythm, in contrast, is more like a sand walk—the irregular way the Fremen pass over their planet’s sands so as not to summon the sandworms underneath who are attracted to surface staccato. I’m not sure to what degree this rhythmic likeness is intended, but it works! It all works. Pure spectacle is in Dune’s DNA. This is the strongest argument yet for returning to the movies during a pandemic. This is a shock of the most welcome kind.