Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic is a visual feast in this clever adaptation
In theaters and streaming on HBOMax
By Diana Beechener
Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet: The French Dispatch) has greatness thrust upon him by both parents. He is the son of a powerful Duke (Oscar Isaac: Scenes from a Marriage) and a mother (Rebecca Ferguson: Reminiscence) who is part of the Bene Gesserit, a feared all-female religious order with psychic powers. Though Paul knows both his parents have big plans for him, he has another vision of his destiny.
Paul believes he’s meant to venture to Arrakis, which is convenient since his family has just been placed in charge of the spice harvests on the planet. Spice is a mineral essential to interstellar travel, and therefore the most valuable commodity in the galaxy. To the native people of Arrakis, the Fremen, it’s simply in the air and a holy substance. Colonizers have pushed the Fremen into hiding as they mine for spice, causing uprisings and instability in the region.
Paul and his father have plans to change this. They hope to work with the Fremen, to share the planet and broker a mutually beneficial peace. But these plans are complicated. The Fremen have no reason to trust colonizers after centuries of oppression. And the Atreides family are in a politically vulnerable position as other powerful clans hope to exterminate them and take over the lucrative trade.
Sound complicated? That’s the simplified version!
A notoriously dense book series, Dune has suffered through a few subpar adaptations. David Lynch’s effort may be the most famous, with its unique aesthetic but a convoluted narrative and stilted acting. It’s nearly impossible to condense a 400+ page sci-fi novel into a two-hour movie, so director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) doesn’t try.
This Dune is a bold, beautiful adaptation of about half the first book, which poses a narrative problem— the movie leaves off without any real resolution, and some of the themes aren’t well developed. Poor Zendaya (Space Jam: A New Legacy) is essentially stuck in a perfume commercial—looking pretty and windblown in the desert—because her character only features in the latter half of the book and is relegated to Paul’s visions in this film.
Still, this meticulous adaptation of the story is engaging in spite of its two-and-a-half hour running time. The movie imparts plenty of information, outlining the political machinations and different worlds involved without ever seeming to drag, a testament to the film’s pacing.
Villeneuve has built his reputation as a filmmaker upon his visual mastery, and he excels in bringing to life Dune’s collection of worlds and giving an immense scope to the battles. Many of the shots in Dune are simply stunning, with CGI that looks natural.
Though it will premiere both in theaters and on HBOMax, it’s a film that shines on the big screen; if you feel comfortable venturing to a theater, please do.
Most of the flaws found in Dune come from the limitations of the narrative. The book series, which is ultimately about the dangers of a messiah figure, features some extremely clichéd tropes (granted a few of these clichés were popularized by Dune). Paul is the archetypical Chosen One, complete with a savior storyline. Because this is telegraphed so early in the film, there are very few narrative surprises (certain things need to happen for our hero to have his hero’s journey).
Though Dune isn’t reinventing the wheel narratively, it certainly stacks the deck with acting talent. Chalamet, Isaac, Ferguson, and Stellan Skarsgård all shine in this epic tale. Skarsgård in particular makes skin crawl as the politically and morally corrupt Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a man determined to exterminate the Atreides family. Chalamet also does an admirable job of keeping Paul’s trope-ridden story from seeming like too much of a slog.
If you’re in the market for a new epic sci-fi film series, Dune’s first entry proves extremely promising. With the stunning visuals of Lord of the Rings and the crowd-pleasing themes of Star Wars, Villeneuve’s film should earn a devoted following.
Good Sci-Fi Epic * PG-13 * 155 mins.