It’s hard to be a messiah. Even before he recognizes that this is what he is, the young Paul Atreides of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, played by Timothée Chalamet, lets the grief of expectation seep into his body, down to the drowsed slump of his shoulders and the toneless, contemplative wariness of his voice. The actor’s charm is kept in check; his latent vulnerabilities are in overdrive. Paul is the heir to House Atreides, whose fief is the oceanic planet of Caladan, a stony, rainy, tumultuous world, limited in its purview and power. An unusual home for a family said to descend from the ancient Greeks. But it helps to explain why everyone seems a little down in the dumps.
In another kind of movie, this quality would maybe seem less worthy of remark. A moody teen. So what? But Dune, as Villeneuve has ambitiously sought to tell it, is above all a story of empire, to which Chalamet’s performance lends an interesting texture, soft and uncertain amid the movie’s hardness. This is Villeneuve, after all. The conspicuous sense of design, the brutalism of its sets and sounds (the latter coming courtesy of Hans Zimmer), the overwhelming aesthetics: None of this should surprise us. Villeneuve’s Dune is a thick, loud, well-fed spectacle of a movie, towering over the people in it with a brooding sense of intention — even in its quieter moments, even when wrestling through the Herbert novel’s wide-ranging, learned, quirky mysticism.
But Dune is not just about the bone-rattling heft of its flying machines or its labyrinthine palace interiors or the intergalactic tangle of its imperial politics. Villeneuve must also wrestle with the oddities of the Frank Herbert novel on which the movie is based: the Bene Gesserit witches and their strep-throat vocal manipulations; the Fremen warriors of Arrakis with their blue eyes and violent devotion to the land; the gigantic worms with their baleen-like mouths; the psychotropic desert crop called melange — a.k.a. the spice. I will never be able to un-hear Kyle Machlachan, in David Lynch’s maligned 1984 adaptation, saying it this way, in a horny whisper that now plays like an early foray into ASMR: The spice. There’s an air of mystery to it when MacLachlan says it. Villeneuve’s take is, by contrast, far less weird. It takes seriously the challenge of adapting a seemingly unadaptable novel, and keeping all its big-picture implications in full view. It earns its distinction as a faithful adaptation — and proves a satisfying movie, too.
Hero’s journeys are satisfying by design. But Dune — both the novel and this adaptation — has more going on under the hood than its veneer of hero-myth rehashing would suggest. Chalamet’s Paul seems to carry the weight of an empire on his shoulders because, well, he does. Heavy weighs the promise of his father’s crown, and an eminent war that Paul senses he will have to fight. Paul is prone to visions of the future in his dreams. But one needn’t have ESP to know that there will be a war between House Atreides and their foes, the monstrous House of Harkonnen. The Harkonnens’ longtime stronghold over the desert planet Arrakis — rich with that so-called “spice,” which happens to be essential to operating intergalactic machinery — has suddenly come to an end. This is a strategic play, apparently, the workings of an overarching empire that’s pulling the strings, and it is meant to set these powerful houses at odds.
There in the middle stands Paul, next in succession for the dukeship of the House of Atreides behind his father Leto (Oscar Isaac). It cannot be coincidence that Paul, with his long coats and inward-looking sorrow, appears onscreen in a crucial moment like a cinematic successor to Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Fog,” a lone figure staring off into a void of clashing uncertainties. One gets the feeling, just from watching Paul and Leto interact, that no one is under the illusion that any particular reign will get a chance to outstay its welcome. That’s war-torn space imperialism for you. Leto’s father was a bullfighter. His reign was cut prematurely short by a bull that had the gall to fight back. So: a doomed legacy. It hangs over the wary Atreides clan with an undeniable sense of reality — literally. The head of that bull looms over the family’s long-tabled dining quarters, watching over them as they enjoy the spoils of their power.
You could say the bull has been conquered, being a trophy now. Funny how it doesn’t feel that way. To say Leto and Paul make for a reluctant line of hero-leaders would be an understatement. Villeneuve renders it overstatement. The movie’s flashy successes and curious lapses both, often enough, come down to this.
Technically, this Dune is just “Part One” of the saga. Villeneuve’s first wise move: splitting the novel in half. He told Vanity Fair that he would not commit to making the movie with Warner Bros. unless he could make it in two parts. He wasn’t the first to notice that Herbert was simply doing too much to make sense of in the space of a typical metroplex feature. Alejandro Jodorowsky planned to turn Herbert’s epic into a 12-hour movie; Lynch compressed it (and/or had it compressed) into a Tangerine Dream-y two-hour saga. Villeneuve has struck something of a bargain between the two. This approach allows him to wind his way through the novel’s flummoxing heaps of exposition with stylish, procedural efficiency — every shot assured; every special effect made to feel special. Across Dune’s many adaptations — including the SyFy TV series from 2000 and the unrealized could-have-beens by directors as varied as Jodorowsky, David Lean, and Ridley Scott — Villeneuve’s has most firmly cemented itself as a story about the geopolitical morass of war between, as Herbert put it, the “polish” of civilization and the native outliers, the keepers of the land.
Co-written by the director with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, the film leans into the story’s clear blockbuster potential, trying where it can to be thoughtful about it. It is the kind of big-ticket, big-idea, big-cast epic the director has been working toward for some time now. It is a worthy attempt to carve out an intelligible path between Dune’s opposing halves, with the through-line being Paul’s displeasure at being trapped at the crossroads. On the one side, there’s the mysticism, that Messianic fate Paul inherits from his Bene Gesserit witch-mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), which has begun to plague his dreams with visions of a young Fremen woman named Chani (Zendaya) — the stuff Lynch’s Eighties rendition dove into with unintentionally campy verve. And in the other corner, there’s the war-story mechanics, with all the big-budget trappings that come with them.
It all amounts to another chance for Villeneuve to lay out the most consistently impressive feat of his films: the design. From the towering, anonymous allure of the women of the Bene Gesserit, whose beanstalking strides through the film make us instinctively tilt back in our seats; to the vast and varied landscapes (the fog-misted home planet of the Atreides clan, the deadly Arrakis desert, and most especially the temples of the House of Harkonnen, so dark as to seem carved out of a vacuum of ink); to the straightforward excitement of watching giant things go boom. This is the kind of film in which the visual wizardry often has the material splendor of practical effects. It’s irresistible on that front. The spice floats through the air like live sparks or miniature jewels, gleaming with mystery and importance. When ships get blown to bits, they crumble apart as if they were wrought from mere clumps of sand. When those sand worms emerge — and everyone who loves the Dune enterprise has something at stake in the movie getting these fearsome beasts right — their desert-cloud fury feels lifelike and ugly, their maws more terrifying for being revealed only sparingly.
But the new Dune has so invested itself in the story’s monolithic power that the more down-to-earth ingredients at stake sometimes feel inert. The actual drama isn’t as satisfying as the physical world Villeneuve and his collaborators have dreamed up to surround it. Take away the shock and awe of the movie’s accomplished world-building and his lively action set-pieces, and only a handful of scenes really work as scenes — which feels odd. For as human as it is, Dune’s entire story plays out in the far-future, on alien planets, and is overstuffed with costumes and little twinges of detail suggesting that this world’s idea of “normal” is a far cry from our own. That uncanny power feels segmented from the rest of Villeneuve’s vision. With the exception of seeing Chalamet get high on the spice in one captivating set piece, it’s just not quite as convincing.
You can’t blame the cast. Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Javier Bardem as the imposingly reticent Fremen leader Stilgar, Josh Brolin as the fantastically trigger-happy Gurney Halleck, and a broader supporting net of supporting players all try to strike the balance that the movie needs, with the war-mongering and spice-huffing and witchery all capably accounted for. David Dastmalchian and Dave Baustista star as the yin and yang of Harkonnen’s inner circle; Charlotte Rampling brings cruel knowingness to her role as the witchiest Bene Gesserit of them all. And a wonderful set of turns from Stephen McKinley Henderson, Chang Chen, and Babs Olusanmokun, none of whom needs much screen time to sear their characters into our minds, gives the movie a dash of soul. At times it can feel overflowing with showy performances. A bald and bloated Skarsgård really does emerge headfirst out of darkness into a spotlight, rubbing his dome pensively, looking wet and slippery and villainous as a demon seal — a moment out of the Brando playbook that looks stunning but feels obvious. (Brolin, by comparison, gets a lot more mileage out of a performance that verges on Rambo levels of reactionary violence.)
Two of the best turns offer a refreshing counterpoint to the occasional showing off. There’s Sharon Duncan-Brewster as a gender-reversed Dr. Liet-Kynes (played in the 1984 version by the estimable Max von Sydow), with the added benefit of an enlarged role compared to the book. And there’s Jason Momoa as the irrepressibly charismatic warrior-swordsman Duncan Idaho, whose caring concern for young Paul is the film’s most convincing emotional thread. If not for the consistent peculiarity and merit of certain actors — Henderson, Duncan-Brewster, Momoa, Bardem — it’d be easy to forget what a strange universe Herbert has bestowed on us, flashy movie tricks be damned.
Why does this movie still work? Because it’s big and breathless and committed, so capably navigated in its finest moments that you can’t help but give credit where it’s due. Its flaws cannot derail the most compelling mark in the movie’s favor: the pleasure of a big, somewhat silly blockbuster. In a healthier, more robust moment for big-tent Hollywood spectacles, Dune would maybe not feel like such a big deal. But it is a big deal, in its way. The kind of mainstream-visionary deal that Tenet, with its pandemic-marred release, didn’t get to be; which Marvel and DC fare isn’t quite designed to be (with a couple of exceptions); and which long-promised Avatar sequels 2 through 200 have yet to be.
There are directors who seem to want to make the 2001: A Space Odyssey of their era. No one has. But Villeneuve is unabashedly one such Star Child-aspiring director: a striving visionary whose canvas has grown ever bigger in what feels like a short span of time. If his sure-footed, leaping strides from Sicario to Arrival to Blade Runner 2049 weren’t enough proof of that, Dune most certainly is. What’s fun and flawed about this new Dune is that, like Blade Runner 2049 before it, it wears its aspiration to once-in-a-blue moon, auteur-anointing spectacle squarely on its sleeve. So it sometimes falls into the trap of an ambition so overwhelming, it eclipses any genuine glimpses of originality or dramatic imagination. The explosive set-pieces make the movie worth watching; Momoa and Chalamet palling around make the movie worth watching. When the movie whittles itself down to the totalizing, sublime power of a well-funded action spectacle, it hits its stride. It’s in the grand opera of it all that it hits its boring stretches and false notes.
Ridley Scott — a journeyman director with a few indispensable movies, a handful of really good movies, and a number of whatever efforts that haven’t been bad enough to dim the auteur cred he’s amassed over the years — came to mind each time I saw Dune. Scott was in fact mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis’ pick to helm a Dune adaptation before the project fell to David Lynch. At times, it feels like Villeneuve is evoking Scott directly, and not for the first time. It’s there in his approach to the fortress on Arrakis, which calls to mind the futurist industrialism of Syd Mead’s Blade Runner landscape, only seen by day, with a lot more dust. And those wandering dead-wife daymares that punctuated Gladiator find their echo, here, in Paul’s dreams of Chani, which at their most intriguing recall “Afghan Girl,” that omnipresent and unforgettable National Geographic cover of an Afghan woman whose green eyes nearly break the skin of the image. Villeneuve, like Scott in Gladiator, overuses the gesture. He comes back to it again and again, selling us on the idea that Paul is haunted (fair enough) while draining Chani of the very magnetism she’s meant to impress upon us.
Maybe the lapses only stand out because of what’s so accomplished about the movie otherwise. Dune has pretensions to being about something. Hear Chani say: “They ravage our lands before our eyes.” See, in slow, sculptural montage, the aforementioned ravaging. It is a deliberate choice. And much of what follows, the film’s stark desert images, its views of the Fremen and the cultural reality of invasive desert warfare that their faces and wary eyes knowingly evoke, are all equally deliberate. Whether Villenueve’s saga has anything truly of interest to say in that direction, whether its depiction of empire has a backbone of ideas worthy of such grandeur, remains to be seen.
Good thing, then, that we’ll undoubtedly get to see the sequel. All this nodding toward the future means that the moral terrors underlying Part One’s visual wonders feel more outlined and gestured at than rigorous or real — for now. Much of what seems murky in this first chapter feels wrought in anticipation of the terrifying clarity we can expect of the sequel. The sorrows of young Atreides, so pervasive in this movie, may prove a useful aperture. We laugh nowadays at that line from Revenge of the Sith: “You were the chosen one!” But in effect, something similar seems to lurk ahead for Paul, whose visions have a good track record when it comes to bearing fruit. Given the substance of some of those visions, that makes for a rough prospect. Part One is good enough to make you want to stick around and see it — and to see if Villeneuve really does something with it. This movie reiterates an already-proven point: the guy’s got talent. It will be up to Part Two to show us how much further he’s willing to ride it.