Take an avant-garde director, a dense novel, a decade like the 80s, and you’re gonna get a film like 1984’s Dune. While David Lynch’s film has developed something of a cult following, few would call it a complete portrait of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel. Lynch’s adaptation only fed into the argument that the book can never be filmed. Of course, people said the same thing about The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson and Ralph Bakshi understood that Frodo’s story couldn’t be covered in one movie. Likewise, Denis Villeneuve wisely doesn’t condense Paul Atreides’ journey into 155 minutes.
Although Villeneuve’s Dune is only the first half of Herbert’s novel, he’s crafted an epic film in every sense. From the all-star cast, to the sweeping cinematography, to the striking special effects, the film’s scale couldn’t be grander. At its core is a story that practically feels biblical, which is appropriate since the source material is nearly as long as the Bible. For longtime fans of the franchise, this is the screen adaption you’ve been waiting for. For those unfamiliar with Arrakis, House Atreides, and the Spice, Villeneuve’s Dune is a surprisingly user-friendly introduction.
Timothée Chalamet is reserved yet charismatic as Paul, the heir to Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto Atreides. Like most young men his age, Paul can’t stop thinking about Zendaya, who plays his literal dream girl. While Paul doesn’t entirely understand these mysterious dreams, they seem to be luring him to Arrakis. Also known as Dune, this desert planet is crawling with a priceless substance called the Spice and gigantic Sandworms. The beastly worms are the least of Paul’s problems, as his father is stabbed in the back, leaving his house vulnerable to the villainous House Harkonnen. Stellan Skarsgård oozes with dread as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who combines the physical appearance of Jabba the Hutt with the understated demeanor of Don Vito Corleone.
While Chalamet shines as Paul, his relationships with the rest of the cast carry Dune. From stern weapons master Gurney (Josh Brolin) to quick-witted swordmaster Duncan (Jason Momoa), you can immediately pick up on Paul’s relationship with every character he encounters. Even the simplest exchanges say more than any of the exposition dumps in the Lynch movie. Paul’s most prominent rapport is with Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who teaches him the ways of the Bene Gesserit. Ferguson strikes an ideal balance between being Paul’s mentor and maternal figure, delivering a deeply emphatic performance. Although Warner Bros. is campaigning Ferguson for Best Supporting Actress consideration, she’s essentially a leading lady here.
Speaking of Oscars, Dune seems destined to clean up in the tech categories. If there’s any justice, Villeneuve will make the Best Director lineup as well. So many modern sci-fi films exist within computers and green screens. While CGI is all over Dune, the practical effects and real locations help to keep its universe grounded. Hans Zimmer’s score and the sound design will leave the theater shaking like an earthquake. Its presence on HBO Max may be tempting, but Dune was made to be experienced on the largest screen possible, especially when the Sandworms show up. If Star Wars is rock n’ roll and Star Trek is classical musical, Dune finds the perfect middle ground. It’s the thinking man’s sci-fi that still manages to deliver action, class, and heart.