The best-selling books in the Dune series are as intriguing and ambiguous as a desert’s shifting sands. So it makes sense a star-studded new movie adaptation from director Denis Villeneuve manages to be both hugely satisfying and incredibly frustrating. The 2021 Dune film is a tour de force of cinematic sci-fi, a star-studded yet deeply weird fantasy epic, and a thoughtful and thrilling movie experience.
Villeneuve’s version of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel opens with a title reading “Dune: Part One.” That’s your first warning that the film isn’t going to give you a lot of closure. It’s certainly packed with ideas and stunning visuals and information by the spaceship-load, but it’s also the setup for a story that’s just getting going when out of nowhere the credits roll.
The powerful Atreides and Harkonnen families are space aristos squabbling over the planet Arrakis, a desert world where the only thing more treacherous than the shifting sands is the backstabbing politics. Arrakis is the only source of spice, a substance that acts as the fuel for space travel in the Dune universe. On Arrakis, spice glitters in the very air, riches so intoxicating you can taste them.
Spice has a mysterious allure for Timothée Chalamet’s young princeling Paul Atreides. He’s got a lot going on: His dad (Oscar Isaac) is an upright duke teaching him to play the game of cosmic realpolitik; his mom (Rebecca Ferguson) is a superpowered space witch; he’s plagued by horny teen dreams of a blue-eyed desert warrior (Zendaya); and he just might be an intergalactic messiah.
Paul is at the heart of this thumping space epic, which combines Shakespearian castle intrigue with wide-screen desert vistas, incendiary battle scenes and a cast of billions. In Villeneuve’s hands, this version of Dune is a richly detailed and hugely evocative imagining filled with striking imagery. It’s supremely and winningly odd.
The film juxtaposes fever-dream science-fantasy with medieval imagery: Sinister space nuns in billowing robes descend from looming spaceships; Interplanetary treaties are endorsed with wax seals beneath fluttering banners; Berserker armies make blood sacrifices before donning silent jetpacks. It’s all faceless helmets and deep shadows as the action moves from rain-slicked granite to iridescent sand, set to a hypnotic and throbbing Hans Zimmer score of wailing choirs, electric drones, nerve-jangling percussion and great honking bwaarrrrps. And bagpipes.
The rain-lashed home world of the upright House Atreides is perfect for moody pacing on wave-battered cliffs.
The conflict is explicitly grounded by Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser in the visual style of a modern war movie. Dragonfly-like aircraft thrum past the camera like Vietnam-era helicopter gunships as the air fills with distinctly 20th century radio chatter. The film opens with an army suddenly withdrawing from Arrakis, and it’s a chilling image in light of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in recent weeks.
“Arrakis has seen men like you come and go,” says one indigenous character. “Who will our next oppressor be?” asks the world-weary narrator.
The conflict is explicitly driven by wealth, and it’s fascinating to see a sci-fi movie grapple with the economic aspect of politics as well as the familiar interplanetary power struggles. House Atreides may be noble and the Harkonnens venal, but their nature is irrelevant in this galactic economy: No matter how they feel about it, they must fill their quotas. Space capitalism!
It’s hardly a polemic, however. There are so many ideas flying about in this film that many are mentioned only once, and you’re invited to develop your own thoughts on inequality, scarcity of resources, climate crisis, war, feudalism, space travel, dreams, parenthood, oneness with nature, and so much more. As if that wasn’t enough to mull over, it’s all wrapped up in a dense lore of multiple languages and strange terminology, which means multiple voice-overs explaining it all.
The weirdness of the sci-fi is also grounded by a limited range of color on screen. Beyond the blackness of space, the only colors in this universe are gray and beige. Don’t get me wrong, Dune looks great, but outside of the fantastical design, the muted palette borders on drab.
The acting is also similarly muted: everybody is impassive and solemn and mutters the often incomprehensible dialogue in hushed tones. Like Villeneuve’s previous films, it’s dramatic and intense. But it’s also rather one-note, allowing Jason Momoa to stand out, for example, just by showing that he’s enjoying himself. The most dynamic range comes from Ferguson as the conflicted Atreides matriarch, embodying the emotional turmoil of a character who’s both impassioned mother and scheming zealot.
As for the actor in the leading role, Chalamet’s cheekbones and soulful eyes do most of the storytelling. He doesn’t have a great deal to say, which makes his character either beguilingly ambiguous or vaguely defined. Is he dutiful or distracted? Is he a reluctant leader or ambitious plotter?
The young prince is troubled by visions of the future, and they’re troubling for the viewer too. Some of those visions flash forward to a sequel, and frankly look more exciting than some of part one’s drawn-out sequences. With such an abrupt ending begging for a sequel, you might wonder if they’ve shot the two films together. Nope: The sequel may go into production in late 2022 — and only if this first film is a success, which is far from guaranteed in the face of a pandemic and a streaming release potentially cannibalizing its box office takings.
If you loved Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, then Dune is perhaps Denis Villeneuve at his Villeneuviest. If you love sweeping military sci-fi with a dash of weirdness thrown in, Dune will be your jam. The muted palette and performances won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I could spend a lot more time in this world — when the sequel finally arrives, anyway. Even if it doesn’t deliver much of an ending, this new Dune is a hell of a beginning.