It’s not a simple small thing to overcome the hurdle of adapting a well-loved and complicated book series. Nearly four decades after David Lynch‘s polarizing Dune (1984), Denis Villeneuve shows off his own adapted version of Frank Herbert‘s 1965 novel. Set in a future where feudal houses in an interstellar society battle over resources, political power, and planets, the challenge of turning this story that also includes things like hallucinatory magical spice and political space nuns seemed impossible to overcome.
Herbert’s story, although admittedly dated in some aspects, is enormously complex and offers readers a wealth of a fictional world to dive into. The first novel of the saga follows young Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto Atreides, after his family is sent by the emperor from their home ocean world of Caladan to the desert planet of Arrakis. Arrakis is the center of the conflict of the empire, as it is home to the incredibly valuable resource melange, or more colloquially known as spice. House Atreides not only must face subterfuge from a jealous emperor whose assignment is more machination than gift, but they must also come in to soothe the tensions between the imperialists and Arrakis’ native people, the Fremen. Adding to all of that, there is a prophecy that harkens a great fate for young Paul, but that’s only if he can survive these obstacles in front of him.
Villeneuve’s Dune somehow manages to wrap together all the complicated aspects of the novel in a way that not only honors the source material but patiently teaches the audience about this world without handholding them. By its very nature, not everyone will enjoy Dune. The novel itself is a lot to take in, and as a modern reader who read the novel in preparation for the film, it can be difficult to see the appeal in 2021. But the film takes us outside of Paul’s point-of-view, one of my largest issues with the book, tightens up the plot without trimming away too much of what is important to the story, and fully allows itself to revel in the weirdness of the source material.
Of course, it’s not just Villeneuve. The cast does an impressive job embodying characters who might not have the same depth throughout the novel. Dune follows Paul Atreides, and Timothée Chalamet walks the line between a young and eager ducal heir and a potential messiah figure to the planet of Arrakis. One of the main aspects of the novel is Paul’s rapid development of his abilities. Like his mother, he is able to use “The Voice”, an ability kind of like the Jedi mind trick that allows someone to gain control over another’s mind based on the tone of their voice. Book Paul’s rabid adaptation with his abilities tends to turn him cold and distant and even annoying at times. But Chalamet’s performance balances the oddness of rapidly scaling up in capability with the shock of a boy who has recently undergone immense change.
At his side is Rebecca Ferguson‘s Lady Jessica and Oscar Isaac‘s Duke Leto. Both are magnetic in their performances. Jessica, as the Duke’s concubine and a Bene Gesserit, holds a position of power within his house but is still a rebel to her own order after disobeying the Bene Gesserit and giving birth to a male child instead of a female one due to her love of Duke Leto. Ferguson deftly embodies Jessica, not just as a loving mother, but also as a powerful Bene Gesserit whose voice can quite literally kill someone. Leto, who plays a prominent role in this first novel, is an important figure in Paul’s life and Isaac plays him with distinction while also allowing us to see the tenderness of a father and a lover.
It’s hard to pluck out anything really wrong with Dune. Its runtime is long but nothing beyond the average blockbuster movie of the time. The sets are absolutely breathtaking, perfectly capturing the desolation and majesty of the planet Arrakis. The supporting cast is robust, Villeneuve somehow manages to make Jason Momoa play a character who is not just Jason-Momoa-in-a-costume. Stellan Skarsgård‘s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is a vast improvement from the caricature of the books.
But perhaps, if we were to pluck one thread loose from this rich tapestry, it might be the sound design. Don’t get me wrong, Dune is heart-pounding at times, and Hans Zimmer‘s compositions are iconic at this point. But if you’re the type who loves to watch movies in IMAX with Dolby Atmos, you might leave the theater with some eardrum damage. From the ethereal vocalizations to the booming brrrrms (yes, those Inception ones), my experience watching the film quite literally led me to put my fingers in my ears to dampen the intensity of my experience on Arrakis.
Ultimately, Dune might still be polarizing in some ways. Despite performances and visual stunners, the book itself can be a lot to take in. And Villeneuve’s loyalty to the source material inevitably means some might leave the movie theater simply saying, “I don’t get it.” But as a fan of Villeneuve’s directorial style (I will go to my grave defending his previous three films), and a fan of the cast, and an appreciator of the series, it’s hard not to say that he’s done the impossible. He’s adapted an accurate and artistically unique version of Dune. This film is currently titled Dune: Part One onscreen — Villeneuve has said that it will be split in two to allow space to tell the story accurately — and if it’s more of this, I can’t wait to see it.
Dune will premiere in theaters and on HBO Max this Thursday, October 21, 2021.