Yeah, I’ll be the first two admit it: I’ve never read Dune. At least not in its entirety. I have, on three separate occasions, taken a stab at Frank Herbert’s massive science fiction tome (originally published in 1965) and every single time, the task has proven too great for my puny mind. Trying to read Dune is a bit like staring into the gaping maw of Shai Hulud (may his passing cleanse the world): it’s pee-your-pants levels of scary.
The overall concepts and characters are phenomenal, but the dense world-building can sometimes be a bit of a slog for the uninitiated. And that’s not to disparage Herbert or his works. The man was way ahead of his time, lambasting our mistreatment of the planet long before it was fashionable to do so.
Nevertheless, my expectations going into Denis Villeneuve’s new film adaptation of the book weren’t high. The initial reviews coming out of the Venice Film Festival (where the title held its world premiere last month) did nothing to assuage the nagging feeling that I would encounter the same brand of tedium from my failed attempts to read the source material.
Boy, was I wrong.
This new translation of Dune for the big screen is akin to snorting a fat line of spice (the precious substance that drives the entire narrative). It's a transcendental high that goes beyond mortal description. This is a purely cinematic experience that needs to be witnessed on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system around.
As with all of Warner Bros.' film releases this year, Dune is also available to stream on HBO Max, but I strongly advise that you forego watching this title at home (so long as you are fully vaccinated and comfortable, of course). I now understand why Villeneuve was so pissed off by this hybrid day-and-date model when it was first announced by the studio last December.
Dune perfectly encapsulates our collective love of the movies. It is a dream plucked from the unconscious mind and carefully woven into the delicate threads of a project beam. A fleeting, and yet somehow complex, fantasy that is so strange and beautiful, you cannot even be sure it really happened once it's over. Running at just over two-and-a-half hours, Dune is an absolute colossus of ideas, spectacle, and ambition.
It's a combination that might have proven too unwieldy in another director's hands, but not for Villeneuve. He juggles it all without breaking a sweat, making his last two sci-fi masterpieces (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) look like low-budget student films by comparison.
And even if certain concepts and characters are not fully fleshed out — as adaptations are sometimes forced to do — you can still marvel at the breathtaking magnificence of this fully-realized future in which feuding houses vie for control of Arrakis (colloquially known across the galaxy as “Dune”), a sweltering desert planet rich in the aforementioned spice that makes interstellar travel possible.
Unlike the infamous 1984 version directed by David Lynch, which tried to fit the entire 1,000-page novel into one 2-hour movie, this new and improved version takes its time to breathe, slowly easing you into this larger-than-life world of stillsuits and ornithopters.
Every single shot (miraculously captured by The Mandalorian cinematographer, Greig Fraser) could be considered iconic in its own right: an army of soldiers readying themselves for battle on a rain-soaked planet; a pale and hulking spaceship juxtaposed against the vast blackness of space; the terrifying and bristled void of a sandworm's open mouth; an intimate father-son moment in a family graveyard.
All of that and more awaits you in Dune, which one might be inclined to describe as a mixture of Star Wars and Game of Thrones, had this not come first and served as inspiration for both.
Villeneuve, Fraser, and their creative collaborators (like production designer Patrice Vermette and costume designers, Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan) whip up a scrumptious sensory feast worthy of Baron Harkonnen himself. Then there's the ensemble cast, which includes the biggest A-listers in the world: Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, and Josh Brolin. Each and every actor feels right for the character they play, turning in authentic, lived-in performances that dispel any sci-fi banality.
Dune is, across the board, a triumph. I have been purposefully vague with this review because trying to condense such an epic into a couple hundred words is a complete disservice to you, the audience member. This is just one of those cinematic events that needs to be seen to be believed.
So yeah, I was wrong about Dune — and I couldn't be happier about it. Several days after my screening, I was inspired to purchase Herbert's original trilogy of Dune books. Villeneuve converted me, and you know what? I think I'll be able to really make it all the way through this time. I really do. Villeneuve is the Chosen One, the Messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach. Take your pick. The guy is operating on another level of filmmaking prowess, and it would be an absolute travesty if he doesn't receive the green-light to make his planned second chapter.
“This is only the beginning,” remarks a key character near the very end of Dune‘s two-and-a-half hour runtime. The depths of Arrakis — or Herbert's novel, rather — have barely been plumbed. If you need me, I'll be over here, eagerly waiting for every last gram of spice to be accounted for.
Dune is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.