Thirty-five years after David Lynch’s ill-fated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune crashed and burned on the big screen, director Denis Villeneuve has tried his hand at bringing the stunning epic to life. The film is a coming-of-age tale of sorts. It follows Paul Atreides (a stoic Timothée Chalamet), heir to the noble House of Atreides. Paul’s whole world shifts from under him when the emperor orders his father Leto Atreides, the Duke of Atreides (Oscar Issac), to invade the dangerous desert planet Arrakis and begin cultivating the highly coveted spice. Spice allows for interstellar space travel and acts as a fountain-of-youth-like substance as well as a psychoactive.
The emperor’s orders put the House Atreides in direct conflict with the diabolical House Harkonnen, who had been cultivating spice for a generation and getting filthy rich as a result. As Paul begins to prepare himself to stand beside his father in this new world, he uncovers some strange things about himself and his mother, Lady Jessica (an outstanding Rebecca Ferguson).
Before he even lands on the planet, Paul also begins dreaming of a mysterious young Arrakis-born woman named Chani (Zendaya), who may very well be the death of him.
There is nothing wrong with Villeneuve’s Dune per se. The film is absolutely stunning to watch. The narrative breaks down Herbert’s text so that the average movie-goer, without any knowledge of the novel or this world, can enter it quickly — understanding almost instantly what’s at stake. However, because it’s so fateful to the novel, there are very few surprises, nor does it feel like a work in which Villeneuve took full authorship.
As a result, there is an evident rigidity; most of the actors never stretch beyond what’s on the page. Instead, the film acts as a map, giving us context of this future world, the sandworm-filled blazing terrain of Arrakis, and the Fremen people whose land and spice have been pillaged and abused by colonizers for generations.
Though this is Paul’s story, he and many of the characters around him are just barely interesting. Jason Momoa, for example, is a marvelous actor, but his Duncan Idaho, the swordmaster of House Atreides, is reduced to a sword-slinging hulk of a man without any other motivations other than to protect and serve. The audience is never allowed to see anything other than Duncan’s brother-like affection for Paul. In fact, before Paul crosses paths with Chani, the most enticing character in Dune is Lady Jessica, who has her own stakes in her son and as mistress to Duke Leto, which are entangled with the “Muad’Dib,” the Fremen’s messiah.
Villeneuve’s Dune is just a teaser. Though there are some enticing action sequences and compelling moments, this film acts as a foundation. By the time its near three-hour run-time comes to an end, and Chalamet’s Paul finally encounters Zendaya’s Chani, the story is only just beginning to get interesting.
Since Dune only covers the first half of Herbert’s novel and it’s even titled Dune: Part One on-screen, a second (and hopefully more entrancing) film seems inevitable. If all of this world-building and brooding is to be worth it, then Dune: Part Two must exceed well-beyond its predecessor.
Dune premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 7, 2021. It will premiere in theaters on October 22, 2021.