There are a small handful of books that have been deemed unfilmable by the wider community, and for good reason. The source material is so rich, nuanced, and deep that no three-hour film can possibly do it justice. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower was adapted and the movie has been widely disparaged, and fans are waiting with bated breath to catch the in-development adaptation of Akira, based on the highly acclaimed Japanese manga.
And then there’s Frank Herbert’s Dune, the award-winning novel that spawned five direct sequels and a legion of fans enamored with the planet Arrakis, the only home to the life-changing spice wanted by the whole galaxy. Efforts to adapt it into a movie started in the 1970s and even the great David Lynch disavowed his 1984 version that has since become a cult classic.
But that chapter is about to take a huge turn with director Denis Villeneuve, who has done a great job at transforming the book into a coherent cinematic joy that moves along quickly, all while delivering on stellar visuals. If you’ve previously fallen in love with Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, you’re definitely going to appreciate seeing his signature aesthetic once again.
Adapting the first half of Frank Herbert’s original novel, Dune tells the story of warring houses not on a planet, but in space. At the centre of the conflict is the resource melange, or spice, only found on the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, which enables faster-than-light space travel. Oh, it also has hallucinogenic properties, which probably accounts for the demand.
House Harkonen had ruled Dune with a heavy hand for years and this had led them to the ongoing conflict with the blue-eyed Freman natives. Upon the Emperor’s sudden decree, rival House Atreides is now charged with the responsibility of administering the planet that House Harkonen is now forced to give up (together with the spice monopoly). For the viewer, we all know of this right from the get-go, and there’s a healthy amount of foreshadowing that gives us the impression that the responsibility that House Atreides has accepted is a poisoned chalice.
Compared to the brutal rule of House Harkonen, ruled by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), is a positive step in the right direction. Accompanied by his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their grown son, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), we see the values of this house are in stark contrast with how House Harkonen operates, especially when managing relations with the native Fremen. Little exposition is made and audiences from the get-go know which side they should be rooting for. Though this also means that there’s little space for intrigue and political drama, which would have given the movie a great deal of suspense. Instead, what we are presented with is a clear view of good versus evil over the precious spice, and very little in between.
Carrying the story rests on the shoulders of Paul Atreides, who assembles his own band of mentors throughout the movie. We see how Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) each lend their strength to hone Paul into a warrior that is both strong in spirit and in mind, with their interactions throughout the show. After all, Paul is being set up as the messiah in Dune, having not only being capable in combat but also possess psychic powers derived from his mother, Lady Jessica’s side.
While Chalamet has entrenched the ‘soft boy’ aesthetic as part of his persona, Dune is by far one of the best movies in which he has been able to flex his range. As we see Paul grow from strength to strength, it all comes at a cost that helps Chalamet develop his character in a convincing manner. Being surrounded by a stellar cast certainly helps greatly in that respect as we see shades of their characters being mirrored and expressed as Chalamet steps up in becoming the saviour of the world. Given his privileged upbringing, that path is fraught with trial and tribulation and it certainly will not come easy despite Paul’s natural gifts.
Combined with a solid cast, Villeneuve is now unburdened in being able to world-build as he sees fit. Visually, Dune is stunning as we see how vast desert landscapes have now an ethereal beauty about them. After all, a desert is simply sand but Villeneuve has been able to make it work. For anyone who grew up playing the old-school Westwood Studios RTS game, Dune II, seeing an Ornithopter come to life is simply the visual effects department showing off. All things considered, seeing the dragonfly-inspired craft moving across the screen combined with the amazing landscapes make Dune a must-watch in IMAX. Throw in another expertly crafted Han Zimmer soundtrack and we have the perfect measure of ingredients to make Dune a blockbuster hit once it lands on the screens.
For all the praise heaped on the visuals and acting in Dune, we tend to forget that one of the biggest spectacles in the world would be the presence of massive giant sandworms that all factions need to contend with on the planet. Their appearance in the show is few and far between and they don’t come as much of a threat as we’d like. Obviously, there will definitely be more in store once Paul further develops his powers but that remains to be seen if a sequel is announced and made. Once all the sand has settled, Dune does leave us wanting for more but Part One does come across as a bit too light, especially in the realm of agency and conflict. We never felt as if Paul was in any real danger as audiences are slowly eased into the visual spectacle.
Now that you’ve made it this far, you’re wondering, “Where is Zendaya is in all of this?” Her role as Chani is, truth be told, relatively small in the movie. She appears briefly throughout the movie and her screen presence is kept both light and impactful. After all, even in the books, she steps up only much further down the line.
If Blade Runner 2049 might have been too highbrow for the average moviegoer, Denis Villeneuve makes an effort to make Dune a far more enjoyable watch. We’d really love to see how this movie can be made into a franchise in years to come.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
The best thing you can do while watching Dune is really to catch it on the big screen. It’s a visual spectacle not to be missed combined with a star-studded cast.
Story - 7.8/10
Direction - 9/10
Characterisation - 8/10
Geek Satisfaction - 7.8/10
Gerald currently straddles between his love of video games and board gaming. There’s nothing that interests him more than trying out the newest and fanciest gadget in town as well. He dreams of publishing a board game sometime in the future!