‘Dune’ Gives the Sci-Fi Classic a Worthy Cinematic Vision of Awe-Inspiring Scale

In a world where movies are dominated by massive special effects and every prospective blockbuster is now expected to run over two and a half hours, we risk losing a sense of awe. “Dune” defines everything in large scale cinema, from its look to the music and source material. Denis Villeneuve’s opus is such a grand venture at 2 hours and 35 minutes, that it cannot encompass all of the narrative in Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel. This film has been so hyped and anticipated, that it may surprise some viewers when the opening credits announce that this is actually “Dune: Part 1.” Herbert’s devotees will no doubt want to know how faithful the film is to their cultish book, which was famously filmed into a flop by David Lynch in 1984. Taken on its own merits as a movie, however, “Dune” is a genuine work of awe. Above anything else, it succeeds in transporting the viewer fully into its world.

The plot is as in the novel. We are far in the future in the year 10191. Galactic powers obsess over a resource known as spice, which can act as a potent fuel and has hallucinatory properties. The main source for spice is the desert planet of Arrakis. A mighty Empire is the central authority while various houses compete to get ahead. One of these is the house of Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), who with wife Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson) has a son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet). Paul has been having intense dreams and visions, which suggest he has inherited the mind-control abilities of his mother, who belongs to the mystical order of Bene Gesserit. The distant emperor then decrees that the Atreides are to take over the governorship of Arrakis. This excites Duke Leto since now the family will rise in deserved prominence. They land in the barren planet and learn about its harsh environment from which spice is mined. Giant worms traverse beneath the sands, triggered by motion. Beyond Arrakis there is a plot against the Atreides being hatched by the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), who seeks to rule the desert planet.

A worthy adaptation of “Dune” has been a sci-fi Holy Grail for decades. The stories are well known, including how before Lynch made his version, legendary surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky planned a wildly creative take with a cast that included Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Pink Floyd was to contribute to the soundtrack while designs were made by the painter H.R. Giger (who would later design much of “Alien”). You can see this story in the great 2013 documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune.” Maybe it’s as a wink to that vision that composer Hans Zimmer recorded a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” for the early trailers of this “Dune.” Like many anticipated titles, this one’s release had been continuously delayed by the pandemic. Now that “Dune” here, it feels like the best cinematic interpretation we’re likely to get of Herbert’s messianic novel and a culmination of where Denis Villeneuve as a director has been heading towards for years. At first science fiction was not the genre instantly associated with this visually rich filmmaker. He’s been making features since 1998, but starting in 2016 with “Arrival,” the Oscar-nominated film about language and alien contact, and 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049,” the stylishly immersive sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic, Villeneuve established himself as a unique sci-fi director.

What he does so well is envision the material in an organic way that is grand and vivid, yet keeps the story at the center. Working with screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, Villeneuve manages to take the essence of the story and craft an epic film out of it. Much of the originality in Herbert’s creation is in all the influences he mixes together. “Dune” is Shakespearean royal intrigue infused with mysticism, political allegory and very entertaining action. Villeneuve opens with a quick introduction narrated by Chani (Zendaya), a native of Arrakis who describes how her planet has been continuously invaded for its natural resources. Sound familiar? The Atreides royals dress in uniforms that look out of some World War I portrait, even if Paul practices his fighting skills with force field shielding with Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin). Letters are still sealed with wax. Much of the first act is about establishing the world and interests at play. Duke Leto wants to prove he can run Dune and tries to get along with the local “Fremen” clans led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem), who know best how to survive in their desert home. Layered over that is Paul’s increasing visions, which hint at more than merely inheriting his mother’s powers. It is sensed Paul might be a prophetic figure foretold long ago, who will rise in Arrakis as something more than just a prince. 

In the hands of a lesser director this could have been a very talky yawn. Villeneuve instead immerses us. “Dune” is a modern-day version of the kind of large-scale filmmaking that used to be associated with directors like David Lean, now combined with the gritty, mechanical futurism of a James Cameron. It’s “Lawrence of Arabia” meets “Aliens.” Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser shoot much of the film in the IMAX format, which makes for an exhilarating experience in the proper theater. Instead of depending purely on exposition dialogue, the story is seen. Great wide shots of landing armies in vast Arrakis capture the potent metaphor of imperialism in the narrative. Interiors are not overly designed, but detailed enough to really feel like a complex, alien world with stone murals in dining halls depicting past histories. Vast ships in the void of space cover the screen, with even smaller vessels flying out to land on the dune world. Stellan Skarsgård is unforgettable as the massive Baron Harkonnen, who is equipped to elevate himself when necessary. His first appearance is out of “Apocalypse Now,” bald, surrounded by steam, with a deep bass of a voice. Scenes of war and combat that follow are visceral but also stark, with visual links to Villeneuve’s 2010 “Incendies,” a powerful film inspired by the Lebanese Civil War. This is science fiction on a level more vivid and imaginative than a throwaway popcorn distraction. Armies gather in rain-drenched worlds where beings speak in crackling languages. Women walk in veils that seem plucked from a medieval dream, like Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling), head of Lady Jessica’s mystical order. Zimmer’s music gets otherworldly with its electronic dirges.

Despite all this high-budget excellence, Villeneuve still pulls some good performances out of his vast cast. Timothée Chalamet eschews the macho posturing of typical space adventures and plays Paul like both the inexperienced prince in training and a would-be messiah grappling with the insecurity of his visions. He’s brave but sensitive. You need to sense fear, even in a messiah, when the Harkonnen enemies finally attack and shatter his world and Chalemet pulls it off well. Zendaya’s Chani is more earthy and a born fighter, even if we don’t get much of her in the movie until the third act. “Dune” is a trove of good supporting roles, where even Jason Momoa plays a royal guard who is also Paul’s palace buddy. Of course he still gets to beat up entire waves of enemies and swings a big sword around. The point is he’s perfectly cast. In a film of this type you’re essentially playing mythical characters. No one seems self-aware and inhabits this world and its rules. Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto is truly an ambitious monarch, even in a rubber suit that recycles your sweat into drinkable water for long walks around Arrakis. Dave Bautista is a wonderfully menacing acolyte nephew of Baron Harkonnen, pillaging and warlording when commanded. 

Unlike David Lynch’s version, which is a guilty pleasure in its own curious way, Villeneuve decides not to cram all of Herbert’s novel, which was the first of a wider series, into one film. “Dune” ends at a moment where all that is missing is “To Be Continued” appearing onscreen. In a sense this robs it from feeling like a complete film because the narrative never has its own form of closure. You really need to either read the book or wait for the next film, if it happens, to find out what happens after the final shot. Yet “Dune” is such a bold gesture within mainstream films that even with an abrupt ending it’s worth seeing, and on the biggest screen possible. Villeneuve could have easily made an extravaganza full of rapid editing and endless action scenes to drown out the story. “Dune” has action and effects that will surely be nominated for awards, but it doesn’t rush and is concentrated on telling a saga with a classic feel. 

Dune” releases Oct. 22 on HBO Max and in theaters nationwide.