Author Frank Herbert’s Dune series of science-fiction novels were often held to be unadaptable for the big screen. David Lynch’s attempt in 1984, while it does have somethings to recommend it, certainly helped to cement that idea in people’s minds. But now director Dennis Villeneuve is stepping up to the challenge, and the results are pretty promising.
Thousands of years in the future, the universe is ruled by an Emperor who maintains order by keeping the various royal houses engaged in intrigues and in fighting. When Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) appears to be getting too much power within the great houses, the Emperor conceives of a plan to get rid of him by ordering him to the planet Arrakis, known locally as Dune. There he is to take charge of the mining of Spice, a vital component in interstellar travel, with Dune being its only source. The Emperor schemes to have Duke Leto’s rival, the Baron Harkonen dispose of the Duke and his family.
Unbeknownst to everyone, the Duke’s son Paul (Timothee Chalamet), is actually the product of thousands of years of genetic manipulation by the religious order his mother belongs to. With his arrival on Dune,Paul begins to see visions of his destiny, a destiny he does not necessarily want to embrace, but is drawn ever closer to by the larger political machinations around him.
If there is any director working in Hollywood right now that would have a shot at handling the material in Dune, it could very well be Villeneuve. He was able to translate the difficult concept of a four-dimensional language into cinematic terms in 2016’s The Arrival and his work on Blade Runner 2049 the following year showed he can play within the confines of a pre-established property. And he brings both these skills as well as all the other finely honed tools in his kit to bear here with fantastic results.
While so many science-fiction films have pilfered things from Dune over the years, Villeneuve still manages to bring a sense of grandeur and wonder to the material. The halls of the Great Houses we see are cavernous and ornate, but with a certain emptiness that suggests the slow interior rot of the galactic empire and its institutions.
Dune has a formal tone about it that recalls the big CinemaScope Biblical epics of the 1950s and early ’60s. Not only does it match well with the story’s messianic themes, it helps sell the many millennia-removed setting of the story. The only actor who didn’t seem to get the memo is Jason Momoa as House Atreides man-at-arms Duncan Idaho, who just can’t seem to ratchet back his energy all the way.
It should be noted that Villleneuve’s adaptation only covers the first half of Herbert’s first book in the Dune series. The film ends just as Paul is taking his first steps down his destined path. While it does feel like that is a good place to conclude a multi-part cinematic telling of this story, it can feel a bit anti-climactic. It also makes the pacing of the film seem a bit odd, with the biggest action sequence kicking off the third act rather than serving as its finale.
When Peter Jackson ended The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring with the breaking of the Fellowship and Frodo and Sam striking out on their own, audiences at least knew that Jackson had filmed the whole trilogy simultaneously, so that the the next installment was only a year away. Warners turned down Villeneuve’s request to do something similar with this project, leaving a frustrating and unfulfilled feeling at the end of this film, not knowing if all the setup that they have just sat through will have a payoff.