Dusty space epic
The newest adaptation of sci-fi classic Dune captures the book’s grandiose vision
Frank Herbert’s best-selling science fiction novel Dune has repeatedly defied screen adaptation since its publication in 1965. In the 1970s Alejandro Jodorowsky tried adapting the novel, but the project never began filming. Critics universally reviled David Lynch’s 1984 version with its incoherent plot and irritating voiceovers. In 2000, the Sci-Fi Channel aired a three-part miniseries that stuck to the book’s narrative but failed to capture its grandeur. The stakes were high for director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Bladerunner 2049) when he began this latest adaptation, in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, but Herbert’s book has finally received the screen adaptation it deserved.
Dune is set thousands of years in the future and humans have spread themselves across the galaxy. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) has an idyllic life with his parents Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) on a lush world, and from the beginning viewers realize Paul’s a chosen one, a messiah figure. But the gears of political intrigue start moving when the galactic emperor instructs Leto to accept the desert planet Arrakis, aka Dune, as his fiefdom. Arrakis will enhance the duke’s power because it is the only source of “spice,” the most valuable commodity in the universe. It stimulates the mind, allowing its users to experience altered states of consciousness, and it’s the secret to interstellar travel controlled by the Spacing Guild.
Previously the monstrous Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) ruled Arrakis, exploiting the planet for its spice and oppressing its native inhabitants, the Fremen who live in Dune’s harsh desert. Duke Leto hopes to profit from the spice trade, but he also hopes to cultivate an alliance with the natives, seeing the fierce Fremen as a means to securing his family’s dominance. But the Harkonnens spring their trap faster than the wary Atreideses anticipate. Don’t expect resolution: This movie is only Part 1 of two.
Spacing Guild? Intergalactic feudalism? Space messiahs? If you’re thinking Dune must spend many of its 153 minutes on world building, you’d be right. Herbert wrote countless pages explaining the intricacies of his universe’s politics, religion, and customs—he even included a glossary for all the exotic terminology—but Villeneuve doesn’t make it too tedious for us. He drops his viewers into this fully realized universe with just enough exposition about background matters to keep those unfamiliar with the book from getting lost. But the movie preserves the book’s exploration into how politics and religion use each other. Paul’s destined to be a messiah, but he won’t be a Christian one. Paul’s story was inspired by the colonial European powers’ subjugation of Islamic culture.
Chalamet seems born to play Paul Atreides. He’s brooding and beautiful, and he possesses an air of one resigned to wielding great power. The rest of the cast delivers equally excellent performances. Isaac projects doomed nobility, Skarsgård gluttonous villainy. Ferguson has the haunted look of a woman who knows she can’t protect her loved ones. Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho is the only cheery character in the film, but his smiles and jokes reinforce the film’s feeling of dread rather than inject levity.
Dune—rated PG-13 for disturbing images and strong violence, though it’s refreshingly free of bad language—has plenty of action, but don’t expect non-stop thrills. The movie’s an epic, and it leans into that genre primarily through the scope of its plot and its cinematography. Villeneuve wants the audience to experience the enormity of the space vessels, the enormity of the desert, the enormity of the sandworms, the enormity of the political machinations. Every scene carries a seriousness that becomes oppressive, but don’t let the movie’s gravitas dissuade you. Dune is about the resilience of the human spirit in the midst of oppression.
A final word of caution: If you plan to see Dune because Zendaya was in the trailer, you’re going to be disappointed. Her screen time is miniscule. You’ll have to wait for Part 2 to see her teach Paul the ways of the Fremen.
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