Dune viewers will likely fall into one of two categories: The first are rabid devotees of Frank Herbert’s epic novel, who’ve been frothing for a definitive cinematic adaptation. In the second group, you’ll have…well, everybody else. For all my geekiness, I’ve never picked up Herbert’s beloved book. I can’t really explain why, except to say I was probably put off by David Lynch’s 1984 movie adaptation–which, you know, sucked. When that version bombed at the box office, everybody who said Dune was too massive and alienating to ever be filmed probably nodded with smug disgust. Meanwhile, I’ve been sitting here waiting patiently for the right filmmaker to come along at the right time and entice me back into these strange worlds. When you read this review, bear mind that it was written by an outlander.
From my perch in the cheap seats, I can tell you that Dune has always felt like a classic piece of Byzantine intrigue transplanted into outer space. Think about it: We see rival families squabbling for conquest, a reluctant prince with burgeoning superpowers, mysterious witches, ancient prophecies, and giant monsters. Underneath its naked ambition, Dune tells a story that is shockingly familiar.
The movie unfurls that massive narrative in exactly the way you’d expect: With yet another prologue of ponderous narration. Those who’ve never chowed down on Herbert’s novel will probably have to scribble down a few notes. I’ll do my best squeeze to all this down into Reader’s Digest form: Thousands of years from now, humanity has scattered to a few disparate planets. One of these, Arrakis, is a Tatooine-esque desolation that serves as home to the spice, a substance that supplies its users with enhanced mental and physical abilities, and helps guide their ships through space. All the other worlds will mine it, kill or steal for it. The native inhabitants of Arrakis, the nomadic Fremen, have been driven underground by all this greedy turmoil.
As the film opens, Arrakis has long been the dominion of House Harkonnen, a family of savage warriors who run the planet with a pronounced sense of cruelty. They are led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgärd), a casually cruel warlord who resembles a cross between Marlon Brando in Dr. Moreau and the Michelin Man. Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista) is his nephew and second-in-command, which means his function is to stomp into rooms with a pissed-off look on his face.
Turns out, Glossu has good reason to fume: The emperor has ordered the Harkonnen to pull out of Arrakis and hand over control to House Atreides. The Atreides are analogous to George R.R. Martin’s House Stark, in that they tend to govern with nobility and logic. Of course, like the Starks, you know this unvarnished decency makes them ripe for an ass-whoopin’. Their house is headed by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), who is heavily guided by honor and loyalty. Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), his consort, is a disciple of the Bene Gesserit, a coven of fanatical witches. (My computer autocorrected “Bene Gesserit” to “Best Desserts,” and I almost left it as-is.) Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is their only son and heir. Leto grooms Paul to one day lead House Atreides, while Jessica is convinced that the boy could have untold powers and a larger destiny.
Oh yeah, Paul also has two badass warriors to help groom him into a future action star: Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), a skilled hand-to-hand fighter who regards Paul as an overeager little brother. Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) is one of the Duke’s top lieutenants, and a hard driver who wants Paul to be perpetually ready for battle. Basically, these guys exist in the film to provide some wicked swordplay and look super cool as they strut into fight scenes.
But wait–there’s more! There’s a severe Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling), who wants to either test Paul’s abilities or kill him. And Stilgar (Javier Bardem), who may be a potential ally amongst the Fremen. Finally, Paul has visions of Chani (Zendaya), a beautiful Fremen girl who might play a deeply personal part in his eventual destiny.
Needless to say, this is a busy movie. I can certainly see how skeptics argued that Herbert’s novel couldn’t survive on the big screen. This is a skilled, meticulous production, and even it’s an ungainly experience.
It may be lumpy, but Dune actually has a multitude of strengths. First and foremost, Chalamet is spot-on as the spoiled prince who grapples his status as the Chosen One. This part could’ve dissolved into obnoxious brattiness (Anakin Skywalker) or insufferable precociousness (Wesley Crusher), but Chalamet grounds Paul into a relatable character. Without him, this massive production would have gurgled into quicksand.
The rest of the all-star cast is uniformly solid. Isaac is solid, as always, playing a decent man surrounded by an indecent galaxy. Bardem also scores as the well-rounded rogue, even though the film seems to set him up for a bigger role in the followup film. That goes ditto for Rampling, who can play mean as matter-of-factly as any actor in movie history.
On the technical side, director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) delivers an eye-popping spectacular. Another old complaint about Dune (and Lord of the Rings before it) was that no special effects could ever do it justice. Let there be no doubt: From a visual standpoint, this is the gorgeous, eye-popping Dune that zealots have been aching to see.
For everybody else, the question is simple: Can you be a novice and still figure out what the hell is going on here? Probably. I would suspect this is the most manageable version of Dune that anybody could make. Yes, parts of it seem to skim over pertinent details, and newcomers may be especially frustrated that this thing ends with a cliffhanger. (Part II is pending the box office take on this one.) With that said, I think there’s so much to enjoy–or, at the very least, so much to process–that this is well worth a look, no matter your level of fandom.
156 min. PG-13. In theaters and HBOMax.