Dune, the monumental science fiction novel by Frank Herbert has returned to the silver screen in 2021 with 21st century special effects, A-list actors, and big ambitions. But does it live up to the excitement and is this a worthy adaptation of the much-beloved story? Read on to find out.
The opening gambit
Dune, the novel, is a mammoth of a book, clocking in at over 700 pages. It should be noted then, that this movie covers roughly only the first half of the book and it lets viewers know right in the opening titles that this is part 1. That was the first indication out of the gate that the makers of this film did not intend to rush through the material and it set the tone for what followed.
From there, we’re introduced to the vast and complex universe of Dune. Though the book and film derive their name from the desert planet, Arrakis, the one place in the galaxy which produces the spice melange, which is necessary for space travel, we get glimpses even from the start into the vast universe Frank Herbert has created. Opening scenes feature the mystical Bene Gesserit, who use their religious influence and mysterious powers to manipulate the political and cultural landscape of the empire. We see scenes set upon the oceanic world of Calladan, home to the noble House Atreides, with its martial prowess and tradition. And we even get a glimpse into the plight of the Fremen, the native inhabitants of Arrakis, and their struggles under the oppressive rule of the vicious Harkonen.
It’s a lot to take in for those unfamiliar with the book, but the opening scenes move quickly and are shot in such a dark, austere way, that the audience grasps the magnitude of what’s in store, even if all the details do not entirely make sense at first. One of the hardest things to pull off in science fiction is to create world that feels alien and yet relatable. This movie does that better than any I’ve seen since the original Star Wars trilogy.
The movie has a sizable cast of main characters, including Paul Atreides, his father Leto, his mother Jessica, Duncan and Guerney—two of Paul’s mentors, Doctor Huey, Thufir Hawat the Mentat (an advisor to House Atreides), and the Baron of House Harkonen—the main antagonist of the film. As you’ll notice from that list, most of those characters are defined by their relationship to Paul, the young and promising son of Duke Leto Atreides. This is because more than most stories of such breadth and scope, Dune truly has a single main character and the entire plot revolves around him and his destiny.
Because of Paul’s importance in the story, a great deal of the movie’s success rests on the performance of the actor playing him and how his character is handled in the script. To that end, Timothée Chalamet, who plays Paul, and the writers translating his role onto the big screen, do not disappoint. He gives a stellar performance, portraying both the vulnerabilities and strengths of one of the most memorable characters in all of fiction, a young man thrust into a world of deadly political intrigue and messianic whisperings who is forced to grow up all too quickly.
Paul is continually being thrust forward into unknown territory through visions and mystical experiences and political machinations, all of which are beyond his ability to fully understand. Yet he meets each new test with courage and integrity, leaning on his mother and father and mentors for strength and guidance, but in many ways achieving more than they ever could.
The spice must flow
As a book-to-film adaptation, Dune is one of the most faithful I have ever seen. It’s been several years since I read the book so there may be things I missed, but it seemed like there was little that was changed and only a few minor details added. They capture the harshness of the desert and the passion of the Fremen for freedom, the nobility of Duke Leto (excellently portrayed by Oscar Isaac), and the depravity of Baron Harkonen. The sets are often bleak and yet there is a stark beauty to them, a quiet elegance that evokes the depth and mystery of this imagined universe.
The film feels, just as the novel does, like the comprehensive vision of a single man. The actors, directors, and technical crews all feel as if they are pulling in the same direction. There are no throw-away scenes. Unlike so many other blockbuster-type movies, it doesn’t feel formulaic or like it’s just trying to entertain. There is a tragic, almost Shakespearean quality to some of the scenes. We see noble deaths and bitter betrayals. And there is an inevitability to the events that is the mark of great fiction.
No capes necessary
Dune has some nice special effects, but they don’t overwhelm you. The CGI feels more subtle and organic, so that you barely even notice it’s computer animation. In contrast to the high-flying superhero movies which have dominated the Hollywood butter churn for the last decade, Dune is daringly understated. It’s not trying to be the next Star Wars or Avengers set piece. This is cinema un-Marveled.
This is the best film to come out of Hollywood in a decade
There are no witty one-liners to quote. There are battles, yes, but they are grim and sudden affairs, as confusing and disorienting as real battles would be. Though one character is shown without clothes from the side, nothing indiscreet is visible. There are no problematic romantic scenes and there are only two or three uses of profanity. The violence, to be sure, makes this a work not suited to younger audiences, but in all other respects the movie shows remarkable restraint for a film made in the modern era of salacious cinema.
The future isn’t what it used to be
This film is not for everyone. It is ponderous, serious, and thoughtful. The closest thing it reminds me of is Lord of the Rings, which also took many un-Hollywood-like turns with its extreme faithfulness to the source material, if not in every last detail, certainly in the overall tone and in the portrayal of the world and the central characters. This is a book adaptation done right. We can only hope that the film will find enough commercial success for the studio to green-light a sequel or other films like it.
But Hollywood is a business at the end of the day. Superheroes sell right now, so it’s unlikely that Dune represents any sort of shift in the giant movie industrial complex. And yet we can take heart that at least a few brave folks are still left in Tinseltown who can make a film that is great art.
This is the best film to come out of Hollywood in a decade. And even if other films like it never make it to the big screen, we will still have this one, a rare jewel in the desert, a film as harsh and alluring as the desert planet of Arrakis itself.