Dune feels like a product from another time in Hollywood history. A movie with the scope and vision of modern blockbusters that tells a complex, mature story usually reserved for independent dramas. It’s hugely ambitious, not always straightforward, but accessible and lived-in in a way that makes watching it completely engrossing, even when the thrills and chills aren’t quite as abundant as recent hits have made us accustomed to. It’s an old-school blockbuster told with visuals that’ll delight a new-school crowd.
Based on the legendary novel by Frank Herbert, Dune was directed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) with a screenplay by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth. It tells the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the son of the powerful Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and mysterious Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Paul’s parentage makes him not just the heir to the formidable Atreides army thanks to his father, but a man with a magical, mythical side too, thanks to his mother.
When the Atredies are given control of the planet Arrakis, which contains the most valuable substance in the galaxy — spice — Paul and his family find themselves at odds with the villainous Harkonnens, who previously controlled the planet. Through that conflict, Paul struggles with the burden of his dual destiny as a leader of men as well as a potential prophet.
Villeneuve’s biggest challenge with Dune is dropping us in a brand new world. Sure, some people will have seen the previous adaptations or read Herbert’s books, but the director never relies on that. Instead, he delicately balances plot and character development with establishing the rules of this fictional universe, all through attention to detail. Nothing in Dune is an afterthought.
Every single frame, every single sound, every single choice, feels like it’s been deliberated for months and the filmmaking proudly relishes each detail. Establishing shots linger a few extra seconds. Costumes are introduced fluttering in the wind for maximum beauty. Characters who aren’t on screen for more than a second feel like they deserve their own spin-off movie. Even the sci-fi props are presented with a certain reverence for their design, hitting a bullseye between looking cool and innovative as well as old and worn out. This is a new world for us, but not for the characters.
Thankfully, none of that filmmaking opulence distracts from the story. All of the mise-en-scène works together to establish a grandiose, awe-inspiring canvas for the story and characters to play on, but it’s never the point. Your eyes will dart around the frame exploring all the gorgeous vistas and technology, your ears will perk up with the complex sound design and distinct Hans Zimmer score, but after that, everything comes back to Paul, a young man beginning to explore the ways of the galaxy while also figuring out his part in it. And this Paul is a perfect vessel for the audience’s journey.
His story is at the centre of the more layered political intrigue happening around him and yet, thanks to Chalamet’s performance, none of that is ever overwhelming. His Paul is confident and grounded, but playful, too. As he discovers more about the ways of the world, we enjoy his reactions and relate to his trepidation. When he learns, we learn. When he evolves, the story evolves.
With so much character development and world-building, though, Dune does, at times, feel almost too ambitious. A tad too slow. Even a bit incomplete. It helps immensely that the film begins with the card “Dune: Part One,” because then you realise this two-and-a-half-hour movie, much like the first and second Lord of the Rings, was made on the hope and prayer we’d get to see another.
That seed helps cover the fact that the first hour of the movie favours character and planet introductions over action — the biggest set piece of the film comes with about an hour left — and that the film’s climax is between two characters, and not two million (as one might expect in a film this size). Villeneuve’s Dune is clearly about the growth of Paul first, and showcasing this world in a way that will delight and mystify second; in those aims he succeeds. Soaking in this endlessly wondrous world for two-plus hours absolutely carries a bit of the narrative detriments.
Another thing that helps Dune overcome a few of its flaws is the casting. Beyond just the Atredies family, Villeneuve has filled Dune with very famous, talented actors who are a pleasure to watch. Some — like Jason Momoa as Atredies soldier Duncan Idaho and Stellan Skarsgård as the evil Baron Harkonnen — have excellent roles in this movie.
Momoa, in particular, bringing a swagger and excitement beyond anything we’ve seen from him before. Others, like Dave Bautista as a Harkonnen leader, and Zendaya and Javier Bardem as crucial members of the Fremen people, have smaller roles in this instalment. We see them, they’re compelling, but we’re left waiting to see just how exactly that could play out in the future.
What could happen in the future isn’t something you can think about when critiquing a movie though. There’s this movie, this story, and if it doesn’t work on its own, that would problem. It’s not a problem here. This Dune, by itself, even if we never get another movie, sets a new standard for modern sci-fi epics. Villeneuve’s attention to detail in design, combined with his expansive vision of multiple worlds, conveys a reverence and respect for the material that makes the film feel even more majestic than it already is (and it’s pretty damn majestic).
It would be a travesty if we never got to see the second part of this story, but Part One has satisfying narrative threads with a logical endgame that leaves you wanting more. The set pieces, while sporadic, are exciting and the movie presents such a fantastic, robust sci-fi world, you could watch it a million times and find something new with each viewing.
And yet, that dense, complex world exists solely to enhance a personal, relatable, emotional story. A story of a world where a boy grows to be a man with all sorts of unfathomable expectations — expectations this movie probably has on it too. But don’t worry, Dune is awesome in every sense of the word, and it’ll be a movie fans cherish for years to come.
Dune just had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It opens in Australian theatres on December 2.