In Roger Ebert’s review of the 1984 movie “Dune,” the legendary critic does not hold back: “This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time” (Roger Ebert, 1984). If the director and visionary behind the new 2021 film adaptation of the novel, Denis Villeneuve, came across this review while researching for his upcoming epic, I imagine that this utter evisceration of the old movie would have intimidated him.
Of course, the story of “Dune” has also received literary praise from fans and critics alike; Frank Herbert’s original science fiction novel boasts an epic story and dense lore. But the “Dune” series is notoriously difficult to adapt and widely considered an unfilmable story by fans of the series. Screenwriters have struggled to bring the 180,000 word story into a coherent, two-hour experience, as evidenced by Lynch’s widely panned 1984 version. Villeneuve doesn’t even attempt that task; he instead bills his project as two separate parts, with plans for a sequel in the near future (though this plan, as always, depends on the fickle whims of producers).
By splitting “Dune” cleanly in two, Villenueve digs deep into Herbert’s world in a very satisfying way. He has captured the esoteric aesthetic that makes the series so captivating to so many. “Dune” is a world that encompasses the idealistic, jaunty adventures of “Star Wars” and the darkness of “Warhammer.” Billions of humans struggle under the wheels of an interplanetary empire. Brutality reigns. The Sun of Arrakis climbs high into the sky, burning all the light touches.
But the world also brims with human emotion; the psychic will of the main character has as much effect on the fate of the galaxy as the starships and laser guns the Emperor wields. Protagonist Paul Artreides (Timothée Chalamet) does not feel like a dispassionate, spoiled prince. He’s stuck in that stage between childhood and adulthood: too old to eschew his destiny, too young to go on scouting missions with his soldier buddy, Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa).
There are moments when the film feels strangely tender. In one scene, Paul’s father, Leto Atreides (Oscar Issac), embraces him in a graveyard of past Atreides leaders. “A great man doesn’t seek to lead. He’s called to it. And he answers. If your answer is no, you’ll still be the only thing I ever needed you to be: my son.” In another moment, Paul’s mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) screams in empathic anguish as her son undergoes an intensely painful ritual. Her pain is just as real as Paul’s.
Such exchanges feel like they would be out of place in a movie of such grandeur. But, for all its pontificating on sand worms, interstellar travel and the enigmatic spice, “Dune” centers around the humanity of its characters. Villeneuve doesn’t revel in Watsonian explanations for complex (and mostly nonsense) sci-fi systems. Instead, the impact of these archaic and untouchable systems on our beloved characters dominates the movie. We do not get a jargon-filled explanation of exactly how spice allows for interstellar travel, but we see how the processing and export of this valuable resource spurs an endless source of strife for the entire galaxy.
That’s not to say that there’s absolutely no exposition; there’s quite a bit of it, actually. Within the first 30 minutes of “Dune,” you will need to remember names like Thufir Hawat, Gurney Halleck and Liet-Kynes. Secretive religious organizations like the Bene Gesserit hold great reverence, but you may confuse them with the Fremen, Arrakis’ oppressed people. By the time the credits roll, you may yearn for a glossary, which Herbert helpfully includes in his original novel.
This new adaptation of a decades-old story is much more accessible than the maligned 1984 version and even the acclaimed 1965 novel. Villenueve’s attention to detail on the structural level is incredible: Every scene is a story unto itself, while also serving the larger narrative. Timothée Chalamet steps into the starring role as Paul Artreides, and he suits his character perfectly: a boy on the edge of manhood, unsure of his destiny and navigating the spaces carved out for him. Sometimes, it feels like he’s chewing the scenery, but Chalamet is simply waiting for the moment when his lines will hit the hardest.
Similarly, Greig Fraser’s cinematography feels a little indulgent—in a movie that’s already over two hours, how many shots of sweeping vistas do we need? But it’s not just eye candy; every shot furthers our understanding of the characters as actors in a vast and uncaring world. There is intentionality in nearly every scene, every line of dialogue spoken and every shot shown, an intentionality that many modern blockbusters lack.
“Dune” is not a run-and-gun operation. It’s clear that Villenueve has thought quite a bit about what the property means, in terms of authorial intent as well as contemporary themes. At times it feels a bit heady, but that’s right up the alley of most sci-fi fans. Big, sand-worm-sized ideas are at play here, but without an adequate conclusion in the form of a second part, I can’t decide how fully-formed some of these ideas are.
Villenueve has proven himself a master of the sci-fi adaptation. His previous work on “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival” shows respect for both audience and author, and his attention to detail outshines most of his contemporaries. “Dune” is not surprising, but it is impressive. Go see it, if only to prove to the executives at Warner Brothers that we need a second part.