Frank Herbert’s “Dune” has arguably been one of the most respected works in science fiction since its initial release in 1965. It has often been referred to as the “Lord of the Rings” of sci-fi. While that is a bit misleading in terms of the book’s content, it’s more “Game of Thrones” than “Lord of the Rings” story-wise. It is not misleading in terms of its place within the genre because it is essentially to the same level of influence. Another parallel to “Lord of the Rings” is how for many decades people felt the books were unadaptable after many failed attempts came, but eventually the stars aligned, and lightning was caught in a bottle with the advent of a perfect adaptation.
And I want to emphasize the stars aligning element because “Dune” has not failed due to a lack of trying or a lack of talent. The first two attempts at adapting “Dune” to the big screen were done by arguably some of the greatest filmmakers of all time. The first in the 70s by Alejandro Jodorowsky, one of the great filmmakers in world cinema, and the second by America’s David Lynch, a known master of the surreal. Both were perfect choices for adapting “Dune,” but due to budgetary constraints and a lack of time, they failed to get off the ground or ended up a cobbled mess.
The closest film to ever come to capturing “Dune” was with some visual elements of “Star Wars,” the most successful film franchise of all time, and that story did not even come close to capturing the density and nature of “Dune”; rather, it wore its aesthetic over a pulp serial. If anything, “Dune” fits more of what the “Star Wars” prequels were gunning for with the political nature, but fear not haters of those movies because the lackluster execution of those is not an issue.
Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” is a film that was years into the making before he was ever hired for the movie. He expressed interest in adapting the series for years and actively made attempts at tackling large scale sci-fi with his previous works “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049” to properly prepare himself for this massive undertaking. I feel this preparation paid off as this is probably the most perfect adaptation of “Dune” I could ask for. I would say that it’s not for everybody due to how odd it can feel, but in an even more odd way, its focus on this vision does make me feel that there is a lot to easily latch onto for a general audience.
“Dune” follows Paul Atreides, a gifted young man born with great potential, who has to travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to salvage the futures of his family and people. The only people who survive are ones who are able to conquer their fears with all the forces working against them.
The commitment displayed in the film is just staggering. The direction also has a way of making this slow and methodical story really grab your attention and there are a lot of bold filmmaking choices that really stand out due to their unique presentation. For being based on such an influential work, it feels remarkably fresh. I think a good part of that is due to the way Villeneuve chooses to tell the story. The visuals are breathtaking, and if you can, I would highly recommend watching this in an IMAX theater due to the scope and size being presented on display.
I also rather like how, despite taking place on a desert planet, it oddly feels cold visually. The palette may not seem particularly varied, but the way the shots are composed and how light and color are used really makes it work. Black and white movies aren’t colorful either — which doesn’t mean they can’t look good. It’s honestly impressive how visually interesting this film is for something that’s mostly discussions and methodical world building and not a “Star Wars”-like action spectacle. The movie is mostly setup, but the setup is so engrossing I can’t really complain. If you are looking for more plot in your blockbusters though, part two will certainly deliver on that front as the last third of this movie finally has the story kick into gear — and it’s thrilling.
The acting is stellar across the board, as expected with the stellar cast. Timothée Chalamet does a great job as Paul, the protagonist, and really sells a lot of the emotional scenes while still feeling a bit odd and cold. He is very much what I envisioned when I read the books. In fact, everyone does a good job and adapts the character well, but I would like to draw specific attention to Jason Mamoa’s Duncan Idaho and Rebecca Fergusen’s Lady Jessica. Mamoa takes a very different approach to the character than the book does, but it works remarkably well as he’s able to provide warmth, charisma and relief to the movie that it would otherwise be lacking.
Fergusen, however, completely steals the show and is the true star of the movie. I would not be surprised if she received award nods, as her performance is by far the best. The villain also does a very good job being this bizarre intimidating presence. In particular, the sound design on his voice is incredibly cool and unsettling. In many ways, this feels like what Nolan was trying to do for Bane’s voice in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Overall, this movie’s spectacle seems to achieve the heights that he has attempted to achieve.
Speaking of the sound design, it is overall top notch as is the score. Hans Zimmer knocks it out of the park again. If you don’t opt for the theater experience and watch it at home, please get a good surround sound system or listen to it with headphones because this element of the film is truly exceptional.
Now, I feel inclined to give a disclaimer that this movie is only half the story. When the movie ends, you will get that feeling of incompleteness because it really is incomplete. This is “Dune: Part One.” If you’ve ever seen “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One,” this movie gives off a similar feeling to that; or for a more apt comparison, there are “Empire Strikes Back” and “Fellowship of the Ring.” Both are good times, but there is clearly more to the story that will come out soon. Thankfully I can still recommend this movie as part two has already been announced. They did such a good job that I have no doubts that they will stick the landing when adapting part two.
I should note, however, that Zendaya’s character, while being featured prominently in the promotional material, does not actually get introduced to the story until the end. Her character in the book does become a major character but that’s in part two. For this film, she’s mostly relegated to the visions Paul has, so if you’re watching the movie for her, prepare to be a bit disappointed, at least for now.
I’m honestly astounded this movie exists, especially in this form. I truly think this is going to be the 2020s “Lord of the Rings” because it doesn’t feel like a blockbuster made to soak up money, but a bunch of talented people coming together and saying, “Let’s do this influential work of art justice.” I can’t recommend “Dune” enough and I think it’s one of the best movies this year so far and I will definitely be re-watching it again very soon.