Adapting Frank Herbert's Dune, the opening chapter in one of sci-fi's most influential and sweeping stories, would be a daunting proposition no matter who you are. But If anyone was going to do it, that person was director Denis Villeneuve, who proved with films like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 that he can craft big budget science fiction like nobody else. Villeneuve has made Dune very much his own, but also brought the novel's pages to life in a way that's so instantly iconic it feels inevitable. Of course this is what Dune is--how the desert planet Arrakis looks, the shape of the starships that carry the members of House Atreides there, the towering silhouette of the monstrous Baron Harkonnen, the microscopically intricate details on the needle of the Gom Jabbar.
Like the 1965 novel, Dune follows House Atreides as, at the direction of a distant galactic emperor, they assume control of the spice-harvesting operations on Arrakis. Spice is the most valuable substance in the universe, and the planet's previous stewards, the infamously brutalistic House Harkonnen, won't let it go easily. The film only covers about half the novel, which gives it room to live and breathe with the Atreides and their enemies and friends: Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Leto's "concubine" and member of the mysterious Bene Gesserit order, and Leto's son and heir, Paul (Timothée Chalamet); as well as members of their household, including Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), sword master Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), mentat (a human computer) Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chen Chang).
This massively impressive ensemble also stretches to encompass several natives of Arrakis, including Chani (Zendaya), Stilgar (Javier Bardem), and Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster); plus Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), his nephew Beast (Dave Bautista), and their mentat Peter De Vries (David Dastmalchian).
Dune makes deft use of its considerable runtime (155 minutes) and the fact of its bisection. Unliked in previous adaptations, including David Lynch's 1984 version and the low-budget 2000 Syfy channel series, the audience gets to know each member of the cast, particularly those in the Atreides household; this feels like a true ensemble, although Ferguson and Chalamet stand out in particular. Much of the film takes place from Paul's perspective as he accompanies his father in his duties or confronts the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), a particularly famous early scene from the book. But both heads of House Atreides get enough screen time for us to see multiple sides of them.
The movie ably brings these iconic characters to life. But there's no doubt that it excels most in the visual department, much like Blade Runner 2049--though there are no neon pinks and blues in this movie's muted, albeit still gorgeous, landscapes. Although Villeneuve did not work with his frequent collaborator Roger Deakins this time, cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette have brought some of the most phenomenal and primordial sci-fi scenes in history to life. Seeing the sand erupt in waves around a surfacing sandworm the length of four football fields inspires appropriate amounts of awe and appreciation. Likewise, the smallest details seem meticulously crafted, from the gilded relief at the head of Paul's bed to the insectoid spaceships and dragonfly-like "'thopters" that readers of the series know so well. It's clear that much was done with practical effects and on real sets; the difference between Dune and, say, Disney's Shang-Chi, which uses uncanny VFX for even the most simple, small-scale shots, is night and day.
Hans Zimmer's score punctuates each scene with alien-sound instruments and wailing vocals. The desert planet appears mortally scorching; the battles between Houses Atreides and Harkonnen are devastating. The entire film possesses an unrivaled scale. Ships the size of skyscrapers and armies of thousands lend the needed sense that these are powerful factions of a galaxy-spanning empire vying for control of the forces of life and death. It's everything a sci-fi nerd could hope for, and then some.
Of course, Villeneuve took liberties with the adaptation. The Baron Harkonnen, infamously deformed in the novel, glides a man's height above all his subjects on "suspensors," which in the book were simply used to buoy his flesh so he could walk. The effect, combined with the grotesque prosthetics Skarsgård donned, is terribly mesmerizing. Elsewhere, Paul is plagued by visions of the future, which serve to introduce some characters--primarily Zendaya's Chani--earlier in the film than in the novel. Dune doesn't waste a lot of time attempting to explain things in great detail to the uninitiated, and it throws in-universe terms and proper nouns around with abandon, allowing context clues and visual storytelling to do most of the expository heavy lifting. Even then, Chani has very little to do in this movie (Villeneuve has stated that she'll have a larger role in Part Two, should he get to make it).
The elephant in the room, if there is one, is the fact that Dune is an almost-60-year-old story that suffers from a reliance on the all-too-familiar "white savior" trope; Paul Atreides, a powerful young white man, is hailed as a messiah and the fulfillment of prophecy by many (though not all) of the brown-skinned residents of Arrakis. The vague unease this trope imparts might have been mitigated by casting a non-white actor in Paul's role, although one can hardly complain about Chalamet himself. And during recent interviews with the press, including GameSpot, Villeneuve has said he views Dune's larger story as a rebuttal of white savior tropes. That may not come across in this chapter, but I'm inclined to give the visionary director the benefit of the doubt and see where the tale goes next.
Those quibbles will provide plenty of fodder for commentators and critics once Dune is out in the world. But fans of the series need only know this: Villeneuve's Dune is the best possible adaptation of one of science fiction's most iconic works. It's the one you've awaited for over five decades, or since whatever time you first turned a page in Herbert's seminal novel. The talented filmmakers and jaw-dropping cast have done it justice. Go see it so that they can tell the rest of the story.