Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Charlotte Rampling as Gaius Helen Mohiam in Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” (Warner Bros.)
Walking into the movie theater, I realized my mistake. I should have read“Dune.” It was 10 minutes until the 7:30 p.m. start, not enough time to skim over the book’s long Wikipedia page. I first attempted to open the epic novel in the early stages of the pandemic but, even then, I lost focus. This isn’t to discredit author Frank Herbert’s master world-building – the dense language and lore went over my head.
While Denis Villeneuve is one of my favorite filmmakers, I admit I was nervous to see if he could pull this off. Is it truly an “unfilmable” story? David Lynch’s 1984 version isn’t exactly a masterpiece, and Alejandro Jodorowsky couldn’t even get his project off the ground.
But Villeneuve succeeded. In one of the year’s best films, Herbert’s world is fully realized by the Canadian director who fell in love with the sci-fi classic at age 13. Technically stupendous, the scope and design of this film overshadow whatever storytelling complexities hinder it, such as its lack of emotion. It masters what all blockbusters should: remarkable imagery matched with careful sound design and an A-list ensemble cast. A big tale demands a big film – or a big series, as Warner Bros. recently announced “Dune: Part Two.”
The title refers to Arrakis, the desert planet that produces the “spice,” a drug essential to space travel and development. The story follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), heir to Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and son of his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and his journey from House Atreides’ home planet Caladan to Arrakis. Formerly controlled by the tyrannical House Harkonnen, the resource-rich planet is home to the native Fremen tribe. When the space emperor gifts House Atreides with the planet, they are suddenly at odds with the Harkonnens, ruled by the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård), who seek to regain control.
Beyond the layers of world-building, from made-up languages to massive sandworms to Bene Gesserit politics, the story of “Dune” is one that audiences have likely seen before: a messiah protagonist embarks on a hero’s journey. Unsurprisingly, Herbert’s idea of “The Chosen One” inspired the main characters of “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.”
Villeneuve understands the use of physical space and scale, which has become more apparent with each of his films, especially “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival.” For those familiar with his work, you can see that the director had this movie in the back of his mind his whole career. It’s truly a filmmaking achievement, as the visuals are legitimately mind-blowing. And it was worth the wait.
Late last year, Villeneuve wrote a column in Variety arguing his case for the theatrical experience. At the time, I considered it tone-deaf. Sure, you made a movie to be shown in movie theaters, but now isn’t the time. Nearly a year later, I understand what he meant. How can you fully be transported to this other universe – Arrakis – from your living room couch? The movie barely contains itself on a 40-foot widescreen. This isn’t to discourage people from watching it on HBO Max (it’s available to stream on the platform for obvious reasons), but I expect the experience to be significantly different from a theater viewing.
One could argue that this runs out of steam towards the end, that the pacing slows down, that Villeneuve and fellow screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts struggled to end it at the right point. I disagree.
The world-building and visual design are so strong that I felt I could watch for hours more. Not for a moment did it seem boring or slow, the world felt so real it was as if I was watching a documentary filmed thousands of years in the future. The film never gets off-balance, allowing itself to have both quiet talking moments and action sequences with thundering music.
Villeneuve expects the audience to be fully on board from the start, as the opening notes of composer Hans Zimmer’s “Dream of Arrakis” play over exposition narrated by Zendaya. But retaining focus isn’t a chore – the movie moves, practically runs, until the credits roll and you realize those 2 and ½ hours spent on Arrakis are gone.