What little I know about the universe of Dune is limited to one read-through of the first Frank Herbert novel long ago and a couple viewings of David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation that is substantially reduced from the novel yet still fascinating and bizarre (as one might expect from the filmmaker). I recognized the heavy influence the story has on Star Wars and countless other science-fiction tales over the decades, as well as the not-so-subtle metaphors that the “spice” industry has to the petroleum business right here on Earth. As adapted by director Denis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth, this new big-screen version of Dune (or Dune: Part I, to be precise) makes a few adjustments in the storytelling, but it seems the goal was to shoot the novel, enhance the story with spectacular, often breath-taking visuals (in addition to the special effects, director of photography Greig Fraser has truly outdone himself), and a cast of quite familiar faces—which is useful to have when attempting to keep track of dozens of characters.
Assuming most know the story better than or care about it less than I do, I won’t dive into specifics beyond the existence of a kind of royal family of humans, which includes Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, having a good week between this and The French Dispatch), the only son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson). Lady Jessica is part of a mystic order made up entirely of women, but despite that, she’s been teaching Paul the ways of her kind, including something called “The Voice” (basically co-opted into Jedi mind powers by George Lucas). Still, having this power makes one special, and Paul seems destined for greater things almost from the minute we meet him. He is hounded by disturbing dreams/visions/premonitions about a desert planet and a young woman who is either his salvation or his doom. Whatever this place may be and however dangerous, Paul knows he will end up there eventually.
And sure enough, his father is given the responsibility of ruling a desert planet named Arrakis, which yields a product called “the spice,” one of the prized elements in the universe but one that when breathed in unfiltered causes a great deal of harm to those not from Arrakis. Jason Momoa plays Duncan Idaho, warrior, friend and advisor to Paul, who ends up leading the first wave of settlers and soldiers to Arrakis. One gets a sense that most of the Duke’s charges are human, but that Earth is a distant memory; perhaps every character was once human, somehow transformed or evolved with help from the spice. It’s certainly one of many unanswered queries about the world of Dune that probably doesn’t matter, but still makes me curious.
Other familiar faces in the mix include Josh Brolin as the Duke’s right hand, Gurney Halleckl; Sharon Duncan-Brewster as the gender-swapped ecologist Dr. Liet Kynes; and Chen Chang as Dr. Wellington Yueh, who plays a bigger role in events than even he would like. Among those representing the Arrakis natives are Dave Bautista’s rebellious Beast Rabban Harkonnen; Javier Bardem’s Stilgar, who seems to represent those who live in caves in the desert (the metaphors never stop); and the woman of Paul’s dreams, Chani (Zendaya), whom we only really meet outside of Paul’s mind briefly, near the end of the film. Seeming to be the architect of a massive attack on the Duke once he arrives on Arrakis is the grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his obedient sidekick Piter de Vries (Villeneuve regular David Dastmalchian).
The list of characters goes on and on, and it’s entirely possible that the sheer volume of exposition and double- and triple-crosses will keep many from finding a clean entry point into this story. But so much about Dune works on a purely aesthetic level, and the performances are all heightened without too much melodrama or pomposity (unless it’s explicitly called for). The production design provides an ornate yet lived-in feel to every aspect of the locations, and there are times when I simply wanted to stop the film just so my eyes could slowly move over every inch of the screen. But Dune isn’t all about the spectacle. It’s about the perils of entitlement and tyranny, even with the best of intentions. It’s about internal and cultural rebellion and betrayal. And it’s those elements that personalized the experience of watching this movie for me, added to the sweeping visuals, and made those magnificent sand worms seem so damn threatening.
Villeneuve getting to complete his vision for Dune isn’t a given, and it would be a genuine shame if he didn’t get to make his Part 2. This is a sumptuous experience, larger than life yet intimate, unnerving and as much an intellectual achievement as it is a visual one.
The film opens October 22 theatrically and on HBO Max.
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