Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the greatest sci-fi novels of all time – a sweeping epic set in a fully realised fictional world that uses the archetypal hero’s journey to talk about philosophy, religion, ecology and more. This complexity is what makes Dune so special, however, it’s also what ultimately derails director Denis Villeneuve’s new big screen adaptation of Herbert’s tale.
Even after splitting the novel in two – this is actually Dune: Part One, with Part Two hinging on its predecessor’s box office performance – Villeneuve still struggles under the weight of his unwieldy source material. Lumped with more characters, worlds, cultures, and concepts than you can shake a crysknife at, the acclaimed auteur spends most of Dune’s 155-minute runtime bouncing between exposition-heavy scenes set against stunning otherworldly vistas.
The result is a movie that, while impressively ambitious, is all spectacle and no heart – an undeniably powerful sensory experience that fails to make us care about its characters.
In the distant future, humanity has colonised the outer reaches of the universe. When Dune begins, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of powerful House Atreides has taken over stewardship of Arrakis, an inhospitable world previously under the brutal rule of Leto’s arch-rival, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård).
Arrakis’ sole export is spice the most valuable substance in the universe. Because of this, Leto’s appointment promises greater wealth for House Atreides, however, it’s also a trap cooked up by Baron Harkonnen. Although Leto knows he’s being set up, the politics involved make refusing his new post impossible, so he dutifully relocates his entire household – including his concubine, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and son and heir, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) – to their new desert home.
There, Leto, Jessica, and Paul must contend with fierce indigenous tribes, gigantic sandworms, and betrayal from within their own ranks, even as the Harkonnen plot unfolds with frightening precision. And all the while, Paul is plagued by visions of mysterious Arrakis native Chani (Zendaya), which promise a future more terrible than what even his father’s enemies have planned…
It’s hard to imagine a more faithful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel (or the first half of it, at least) than Denis Villeneuve has delivered here. Sure, Villeneuve and co-screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts have streamlined or outright omitted some of the more complex aspects of the book’s formidably dense mythology, but the 2021 Dune certainly hews more closely to its source material than David Lynch’s controversial 1984 version.
Admittedly, the commentary around colonialism, messiah figures, cyclical behaviour, and environmentalism that sets Dune apart from other sci-fi outings is disappointingly underdeveloped in Villeneuve’s film. Even so, there’s just enough there that the story is still recognisably Dune, and Villeneuve lays enough narrative and thematic groundwork in Part One to pay things off properly in Part Two.
This groundwork comes at a cost, though. The opening and closing acts of Dune are a plodding affair bogged down by excessive worldbuilding and sequel set-ups, and it all devolves into a loosely structured mess by the end. Along the way, Villeneuve, Roth, and Spaihts cram a lot of information down viewers’ throats about the customs, politics, and supernatural underpinnings of Herbert’s fictional universe, and if you haven’t read the book, chances are you’ll struggle to digest it all.
At a time when cinemas are struggling, it seems churlish to argue that Dune might have worked better as a prestige streaming mini-series. But honestly? It would have. Villeneuve may be adamant that his take on Dune can only be properly experienced on the biggest screen possible, yet the story he’s trying to tell would clearly benefit from the extra storytelling elbow room – the freedom to drip-feed key information and preserve a sense of mystery – the small screen provides.
Villeneuve does have a point, all the same. The sheer scale of his filmmaking ambition – the sumptuous visuals by cinematographer Greig Fraser, the eyeball-straining production design by Patrice Vermette, and the (largely) seamless digital effects overseen by Paul Lambert, all brought to bear to realise his staggeringly epic vision – isn’t something TV can replicate, even today.
In this sense, Dune borders on an almost spiritual experience. The bigger-than-big imagery combines with Hans Zimmer’s bone-rattling score to overwhelm our senses and remind us why we still worship at cinema’s altar in an era of home cinemas and on-demand services. Yet it’s a hollow spectacle, mostly because we never really get to know (much less care about) our characters.
Paul, Leto, Jessica, and the rest are two-dimensional sketches brought to life by a stable of underutilised A-listers and veteran character actors. Out of everyone, Isaac fares the best – filling in the gaps in Leto’s characterisation with his megawatt charisma – whereas the usually excellent Chalamet and Ferguson have little more to do than trade moody line readings and po-faced expressions.
The supporting cast is similarly wasted, although some players still manage to make an impression. Jason Momoa brings likable swagger to badass swordsman Duncan Idaho, Josh Brolin is suitably gruff as Paul’s grizzled mentor Gurney Halleck, Javier Bardem offers surprising nuance (and the closest thing to humour in the movie) as tribal leader Stilgar, and Skarsgård may be the only person actually enjoying themselves, clearly having a ball as the deliciously grotesque baron.
Then there’s poor Zendaya, who spends what little screentime Chani has trying to elevate this minuscule role beyond the status of a glorified cameo. Perhaps as a concession, she’s given the final line in the movie, and it’s clearly intended to build anticipation for the rest of the story Villeneuve has planned – which, to a certain extent, it does.
After all, now that Villeneuve has gotten most of the expositional heavy-lifting out of the way, he should be free to make Dune: Part Two a more character-focused, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally engaging concluding chapter. Let’s hope so, because, as this first Dune instalment proves, even a movie jam-packed full of dazzling alien worlds feels empty without something human to latch onto.