Dune — out now in cinemas and streaming on HBO Max — is a bold bet. It’s not anything like Star Wars, another epic sci-fi franchise that has defined and inspired the genre. There are no lightsabers, dogfights, or space battles here. The first big scale action comes near the halfway point (though after that, it doesn’t stop). Its characters don’t trade quips, or ping-pong across planets on a galactic adventure. Dune is set largely on one planet that gives the film its name. And there’s no humour on display here, it’s all self-serious. Dune is more akin to Game of Thrones, but in space, and, minus the sex and the humour. It serves up a whole lot of palace intrigue, hints at a questionable quasi-Biblical journey, and seemingly evokes Lawrence of Arabia at times.
But this is what we should have expected. After all, Dune comes from director Denis Villeneuve — he’s also co-writer with Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, A Star Is Born) — who has previously given us slow-moving self-serious sci-fi stories in Arrival, with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, and Blade Runner 2049, with Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. Villeneuve is now operating on a much grander scale with Dune, adapted from the first half (or so) of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel of the same name.
The film requires a lot of worldbuilding. The first non-action half of Dune is devoted to this, with Villeneuve doing his best to make it as interesting as possible. Still, there’s heavy servings of exposition, through a star-studded ensemble cast and talking encyclopaedias. Villeneuve crafts sequences of myriad lengths to explain the workings of the desert planet the film is set on. There’s one to talk about the “stillsuits” that allow humans to survive in the dunes. There’s a long one to set up what the planet’s gigantic sandworms are capable of. Everyone talks about the worms, but we rarely see them — it’s clever, like what Steven Spielberg did on Jurassic Park, but taken even further.
Dune benefits from the fact that Villeneuve understands scale. He can focus on the tiny just as well as he does on the big. Dune has mosquito-sized killer drones, but also city block-sized spaceships. It’s a vast spectrum, and Villeneuve handles it well, designing some memorable moments along the way. Here is a director who can finally realise the ambition of Herbert’s epic, which has long been considered “unfilmable” — a point proven by disappointing and forgettable attempts on both the big and small screens in the past.
But Villeneuve trips over himself in being faithful to the source material. He and his co-writers chopped and streamlined the story, but they retain its central elements. Set in a far-off future (the year is 10,191), Dune follows young white nobleman Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet who is appropriately skinny and lanky, though he’s clearly not the 15-year-old that Paul was at the start of the books. His mother is Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), part of conniving but mysterious Bene Gesserit order, who whisper into the Emperor’s ears and have considerable influence. That’s because their all-female members can see the future and wield a superpower called the Voice — think of it as mind control by way of talking. Jessica has been training Paul in the Voice, even though she was forbidden to, because he’s a boy, not the girl she was ordered to give birth to by her superiors.
Additionally, Paul has been having dreams — some of them feature Zendaya, whose character Chani exists more in Paul’s head than she does in the flesh — that might in fact be visions. The dreams give Dune an ethereal quality, like what you’re seeing is off kilter and supernatural, which it is. Dune’s writers also use them to hint at what’s to come in Dune: Part Two, a movie that may possibly never get made.
Although Paul was not initially a part of their plan, the Bene Gesserit believe that Paul could be a prophesised individual who can bend space and time. Given his potential Jesus Christ-type messiah status, they naturally want him protected. Though they also have ulterior motives that involve Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atriedes (Oscar Isaac), who has recently gotten a new posting from the Emperor.
House Atreides has been given stewardship of that desert planet, Arrakis — colloquially called Dune for the sand dunes that cover all of it. Arrakis is the only source for “spice” that makes space travel happen and grants superhuman powers. As such, spice is the most valuable substance in the universe. And those who control Arrakis are naturally going to mint money. But Arrakis is also home to the aforementioned gigantic sandworms which makes harvesting spice dangerous. And there’s an indigenous population known as the Fremen, who are hostile to any outsiders given the centuries of brutal and indifferent treatment they have witnessed at the hands of great and powerful houses.
As you can tell, Dune has (intentional) parallels to Earth’s history of colonialism, and the atrocities that have been committed by white men, who were only interested in the resources and the associated monetary riches. Arrakis represents the Middle East, with spice an allegory for oil.
Forget the annoyance of yet another chosen one narrative — something Villeneuve was smart enough to upend on Blade Runner 2049 — there’s something uncomfortable about following a white boy when you’re telling a story that looks at the effects of imperialism. Though Dune kicks off by suggesting it’s interested in exploring that imperialist angle, the attempts at commentary are lost soon after.
Dune tries to smoothen out book-Paul’s edges, making him more sensitive, so his image as a saviour for Arrakis’ darker-skinned natives doesn’t feel egregious. But Dune needed to do a lot more.
Dune continuously borrows words, imagery, music and culture from the Middle East, just like Herbert did. The Emperor is the Padishah Emperor, Paul’s messianic name is Lisan al-Gaib, and Jessica’s ceremonial jewellery is characteristically of that region. Yet there isn’t a single main character who belongs to that place. It’s all about outsiders: Paul, Jessica, Leto, Duncan, Gurney. The first book is over 50 years old, so it’s natural that the text is wildly politically incorrect in parts and is lacking in representation. But Villeneuve’s attempts at diversity weirdly stop at casting African American actors. Dune’s failures in recognising the source’s blind spots are a grave mistake.
There’s also a bit of otherisation going on with the film’s villains. On Arrakis, House Atreides takes over from House Harkonnen who have built a considerable empire, having harvested spice for 80 years. Naturally, their chief Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) is mighty upset. Dune sets up the Harkonnens like a brutal zealot force out for blood. On the other hand, the Atreides are portrayed as noble, from Leto’s behaviour (he seeks an alliance with Fremen) to the way he talks (“no call we do not answer, no faith we betray”). But Dune never really wrangles with the idea that they are both villains for the Fremen. They believe it’s right to land on Arrakis and harvest its resources. The movie is never able (or again, willing) to dig beneath to expose the problematic worms within.
Dune is two movies in one, though I’m not sure it works as either. Aside from the worldbuilding, the first half is a lot of political machinations with characters trying to out manoeuvre others, and cultural clashes with characters trying to understand one another. Villeneuve is once again trying to make thoughtful sci-fi fare, though Dune is also more mainstream than anything he has ever done. The second half is pure spectacle. Dune cinematographer Greig Fraser’s camera lingers on dragonfly-like spaceships, the explosions are both gorgeous and harrowing, and its characters battle sand and wind in a way that feels elemental. Hans Zimmer’s score isn’t always rousing, though it is when it needs to be. It finds a whole lot of other notes too, with the synth and vocalising giving Dune an otherworldly quality.
And it is definitely watchable moment to moment, given the murderers’ row of cast members. Isaac is a Star Wars veteran, Jason Momoa is Aquaman, Josh Brolin is Thanos and has been part of brilliant thriller films, and Zendaya is an Emmy-winning lead actress. I haven’t even gotten to the unrecognisable Skarsgård, and Ferguson who’s always fascinating in Mission: Impossible. Dune is filled with actors that would be lead stars elsewhere — but it’s not able to supply them with enough material. This is Chalamet’s movie after all, he’s virtually in every scene, though he is too vanilla for my taste here. It doesn’t help that Villeneuve require every character to treat every situation with the utmost gravity — Momoa the lone exception to the rule at times — which flattens the actors’ dynamism.
And going back to my opening argument, Dune is also a bold bet because it’s an incomplete tale. Titled onscreen as Dune: Part One, it covers about half of Herbert’s first book. You can tell that from the actors cast and their screen-time here — it’s clear they will have a much bigger role in the planned Dune: Part Two.
You can also tell it from the way it ends. Dune cuts out nary a resolution. It prompted me to go, “Wait, are we really going to stop here?” You might be forgiven for thinking that they couldn’t finish the film due to COVID or something. Even though it runs for 156 minutes (including credits), Dune is just half a movie. Or maybe a third, if Villeneuve gets his trilogy.
Spreading Dune (the book) over two movies (for now) does have its benefits. Villeneuve can take his time with the story, with its supporting roster of characters getting more time than they otherwise would. It also helps the worldbuilding. By the time Dune wraps up, you know enough of Arrakis and its evolving parts, that you will be intrigued enough to be craving for more.
Maybe Dune: Part Two will improve on the first film’s socio-political failings too. Fremen will be a bigger part of Dune: Part Two, with Zendaya being the protagonist on the sequel, as Villeneuve has revealed. Given the focus on Paul, it seems unlikely that it will get very far in that regard. On the other hand, since it will complete the first book’s story, it could reflect well on Dune: Part One as the audience will have additional context and details.
Dune can’t be judged as a whole because its second part doesn’t exist (and may never will). For now, Dune must be evaluated on the basis of what we have. We are left with a very odd movie, one that contains a relatively straightforward tale, and is portentous by the scale it’s adopted on, and how it takes time in building its world. But if you’re telling Dune’s story in 2021, you need to recognise the dated-ness of the original body of work and do better.
Nevertheless, Dune is a brave undertaking. Kudos to Warner Bros. for giving Villeneuve the creative freedom despite the box office disappointment of Blade Runner 2049 — I imagine this might find a slightly bigger audience, though thanks to COVID-19 and that HBO Max day-and-date release, who knows how it fares commercially.
Dune is a herculean effort, but it might also be in vain. And while this is the best attempt at a Dune adaptation yet, it also feels like some distance away from being what it should be. Maybe some epics are just better left on the page. Maybe Dune really is “unfilmable”, as much as I disagree with that philosophy.
Dune is out Friday, October 22 in cinemas and on HBO Max. In India, Dune is available in English and Hindi. It will release October 29 in Maharashtra.