Review: ‘Dune’

Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, and Oscar Isaac star in part one of a masterful epic, directed by Denis Villeneuve.

In 1970-something, I sat at the feet of Frank Herbert and listened to him talk enthusiastically about the prospect of Alejandro Jodorowsky adapting Dune (1965).

Herbert’s novel was one of the first books I read as part of my youthful introduction to science fiction, and I was delighted by its depiction of sandworms and spice on a desert planet, which reminded me of some portions of Southern California, where I grew up. Dutifully, I read Herbert’s sequel, Dune Messiah, which was alright, but around the time of the book signing where I met Frank Herbert — at the foundational A Change of Hobbit bookstore in Westwood, California — his next novel, Children of Dune, was being serialized in Analog Magazine, which was truly exciting for me and my few fellow science-fiction aficionados.  

Jodorowsky’s grand movie vision never found funding, as expansively detailed in Frank Pavich’s wonderful documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), which left me feeling sad that his version was never realized. Later, of course, David Lynch directed his Dune (1984), which wasn’t really his version, due to interference from his producers and other issues. (When his sons dragged him to see Lynch’s film, Jodorowsky was sure that it would depress him profoundly; instead, he was elated: “It was awful! I was so happy!”)

John Harrison wrote and directed a miniseries adaptation that was first broadcast on the Sci Fi Channel in December 2000, followed by a sequel series in 2003. I haven’t seen either series; reportedly, they were among the basic cable channel’s most popular shows. 

In his most recent projects, Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Denis Villeneuve has demonstrated his fearless willingness to reshape and remake expectations, exercising a set of creative muscles, separate from, though related to, those he exercised in his superb dramatic thrillers Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2013). 

With Dune (subtitled Part One on its opening title), Villeneuve creates a mesmerizing masterpiece, overflowing with serious eye candy. The film looks genuinely spectacular on a big screen, accompanied by a swirling and thunderous soundtrack that often rumbled the seats where I saw it at an ATMOS theater on a recent afternoon. 

(Unless you want to annoy your neighbors and crack your plaster, I urge you to see the film in a giant-sized movie theater, if at all possible, rather than at home via the HBO Max streaming service, where it will also be available on the day of release.) 

Though my praise may sound like an advertisement for ‘movies as theme park attractions,’ the film’s narrative strength is what is nourished by the experience. The narrative, the picture and the sound are intertwined and feed upon each other in a notably organic manner. 

At its core, Dune is a hero’s journey, following Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) as his travels with his parents (Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac) to the desert planet Arrakis, where his father has been appointed ruler by an almighty, unseen Emperor. Young Paul is said to be destined for great things. 

In preparation, Paul has been training extensively for years in combat techniques, mostly by his friends Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Hallack (Josh Brolin). Lately, though, even before traveling to Arrakis, Paul has been experiencing troubling dreams (or prophetic visions), including recurring dreams featuring a mysterious, blue-eyed lass (Zendaya). 

His mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is closely involved with the Bene Gesserit, an all-female group (led by Charlotte Rampling) with extraordinary, though very mystifying, powers that are shrouded in secrecy, and there are suspicions that Paul may have inherited some of these powers as well.  

Even before House Atreides arrives upon the planet Arrakis, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) suspects something treacherous may be afoot, especially since the rival House Harkonnen (represented by the grunting Stellan Skarsgard and obedient Dave Bautista) has long controlled the flow of the planet’s native spice, melange, which is only found on Arrakis and is very powerful and extremely valuable. The Emperor, however, has assured Duke Leto that an accord has been reached, which doesn’t completely allay Duke Leto’s suspicions. 

And what about the native people (represented by Javier Bardem and Zendaya), who are wise about the threatened environment and the threatening sandworms, but who are wary about all invaders who endeavor to conquer them? They too play an important role as things play out. 

The plot may sound complicated, and it is, but only the basic outline matters: rival royal houses, loyal families, mysterious powers, treachery, fierce battles, and giant sandworms, capable of swallowing people, places, and things of all shapes and sizes. 

Director Villeneuve weaves the narrative strands together, giving substance to the visual delights that unfold continually in an awesome mosaic, sometimes providing colorful backgrounds, sometimes taking center stage as the characters and families and soldiers and villains and mystics surround and overwhelm the viewer. 

It’s magical, mysterious, and altogether mesmerizing. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on October 22, via Warner Brothers. For more information about the film, visit the official site.