The word I keep coming back to is monumental. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is monumental in a way that hasn’t been true of a film in a long time. The director and coscreenwriter has taken a story that is familiar — and not just because it’s based on a book, by Frank Herbert, beloved by many — and told it with uncommon elegance and pensiveness, even dreaminess, on a scale that is breathtaking.
Almost a decade ago, I reconsidered The Phantom Menace when it was rejiggered for 3D. Back then I wrote:
No one is making movies like this anymore. Hardly anyone ever did. There’s sweep here like nobody’s business. [snip] No one worldbuilds in movies the way that [George] Lucas did… yes, even in the less-than-satisfying second [Star Wars] trilogy. The bigness of Lucas’s vision is positively expansive, of a civilization sprawling enough so that even the biggest of the big baddies — Darth Vader, the Empire — are nothing but a distant rumor to many.
But now, here, with Villeneuve’s Dune, we have something like that again. And getting caught up in it is magnificent. Even if Dune is a very different kind of movie.
Yes, it’s another hero’s journey (and a white-savior one, too, dammit), though this is more like if Star Wars was presented from the perspective of Princess Leia. For here we have young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet: Little Women, Beautiful Boy), heir to House Atreides, one of the great houses that rule, under an emperor, interstellar human civilization in year 10,191. Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac: The Card Counter, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), has just been commanded by the emperor to take over the mining of spice on the planet Arrakis; the spice is the most valuable commodity known to humanity, because its hallucinogenic qualities allow navigators to traverse interstellar space. (It just does, okay?) This new post for the Atreideses is dangerous for many reasons, not least because the “brutal” House Harkonnen, from whom the emperor has stripped the spice franchise, is unlikely to take this lightly. But Duke Leto is a genuinely good man — grading on the curve of capitalistic colonizers, at least — and believes he can bring peace to Arrakis, which has been torn with strife under Harkonnen rule.
So House Atreides hies off from their home planet of Caladan for Arrakis…
Paul isn’t sure if he can wear the mantle his father expects of him: to take over House Atreides, eventually. And he’s been having dreams of Arrakis, even before the emperor’s unexpected command, and of a young woman of the indigenous Fremen there, called Chani (Zendaya: Spider-Man: Homecoming), though he doesn’t know her name yet. These dreams are strange to him, and even possibly prophetic… because Paul has inherited talents from his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson: Reminiscence, Doctor Sleep), a former acolyte of the “witchy” Bene Gesserit sect of women who are powers behind thrones everywhere. For one thing, they don’t use the Force, but they do use the Voice, with which they can command the weak-minded. Soon enough, we learn that Paul, thanks to his mother’s doing, may even be the Kwisatz Haderach, a savior prophesied by the Bene Gesserit.
(As you may suspect or already know, Lucas was inspired by Dune when creating Star Wars. The Luke analogue here might be Chani. Funny how these sorts of stories only ever allow women to be on the periphery but never at the center. Do the men who invent these tales imagine that women have no angst, no doubt, no desire for adventure, and no fear of actually succeeding at it? Can a woman never be any flavor of Chosen One?)
But unlike Star Wars, this is not a movie about space battles, and while it is about revolution, that is only maybe just beginning to foment here. (This movie is but Part One. We must hope Part Two gets greenlighted.) There is some action, some things getting blowed up real good, but mostly Dune is supremely dignified, often quiet even in tense moments, a thoughtful and stunningly gorgeous movie about ugly things: oppression and imperialism, political maneuvering and strategic assassinations, parents who bring children into the universe to serve their own presumed grand purposes.
The performances by the wonderful cast are terrific: to a one, they bring a gravitas to the proceedings that elevates the film even further. This is a solemn movie that treats science fiction with the seriousness it deserves, and too rarely gets onscreen. There is nothing winking here.
But in many ways, this Dune is all worldbuilding, of the best, most engrossing kind. There are few infodumps, and those we get are gracefully presented, as when Paul watches a “film book” about the ecology Arrakis. Mostly, Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) lets us absorb the reality of human existence eight thousand years from now in the majestic vistas of Caladan (played by the fjords of Norway) and Arrakis (for which the deserts of Jordan stand in), and in little touches that clue us into how people live: “How does it feel to walk on a new world?” someone asks Paul when the Atreideses arrive on Arrakis, and so we learn that even for a young man of immense wealth and privilege like him, interstellar travel is rare. (Even the vast expense of an imperial visit to Caladan is marveled at.) Atreides tech — oh, those excellent insectile ornithopters! — looks different from Harkonnen tech, neither of which could be mistaken for imperial tech. Enormous ships defy gravity… but a bagpiper acts as a herald for House Atreides. Memories of Earth linger on these worlds — in names Caladan (echoing Caledonia) like Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa: Aquaman, The Bad Batch) — but they are memories only.
If you’re a fan of this particular type of science fiction, of big, broad, far-ranging space opera… if you long for alien landscapes, for new worlds, here they are. Dune may be unfinished, even as it clocks in at more than two and a half hours, but it is deeply satisfying nevertheless.
I am not going to say “You must see this in a cinema, and on the biggest screen possible!” I did see this in IMAX, and it was indeed enrapturing. But we are still mid-global-deadly-pandemic, and cases are soaring in the US and the UK, where many of you reading this are. (If you’re somewhere else, where the pandemic has been better controlled, lucky you!) If you feel comfortable going to a cinema, please wear a mask and go at a less busy time, if you can, even if you are fully vaccinated. If you decide to see this at home, you will still find enormous pleasures here. And, I have no doubt, many of the films that hit screens this year and last will, in coming years, get big-screen rereleases. No movie is worth risking your life or your health, or those of others, for.