For decades, Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel “Dune” has been considered unfilmable. Perhaps that’s true; perhaps that notion is just the result of many years of productions that failed to get off the ground, like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed 14 hour long adaptation, or ones that just straight up failed, like David Lynch’s 1984 movie. With his new film version—part one of a planned two part adaptation of the first novel in the series—director Denis Villenueve (who penned the screenplay along with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts) proves that it is possible to bring Herbert’s complex story to the screen. But while Villenueve’s “Dune” is a visual treat, the sort of serious, dense sci-fi movie that isn’t seen much anymore, and certainly much easier to follow than Lynch’s film, its story and characterizations are too hollow to fully pull you in to the elaborate world built up around them.
“Dune” is set in the year 10191. Under an empire known as the Imperium, different houses are delegated to rule over different planets. Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of House Atreides is assigned by the Emperor to take over the planet Arrakis, a desert planet whose harsh environment is home to giant sandworms, purportedly violent inhabitants known as the Fremen, and spice, a valuable substance that can both extend human life and is necessary for interstellar travel. The first half of “Dune” is exposition-heavy, but does a decent job explaining these intricacies and setting up the conflicts both within and between all the different houses and factions. As House Atreides moves to Arrakis, their enemy and former ruler of Arrakis Baron Vladimir Harkonnen of House Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) makes plans to eradicate them.
But the main protagonist of “Dune” is actually young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), Leto’s son with Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a student of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, whose members wield advanced mental abilities, including being able to use a skill known as the voice to control others. His entire life, Paul has trained under each of his parents in their respective abilities, and he also frequently dreams of future events and an unknown Fremen woman (Chani, played by Zendaya). Paul has a destiny, and his struggle with his identity and his abilities (a thread “Dune” returns to repeatedly is Paul trying and failing to successfully use the voice) travel with him on his hero’s journey.
But “Dune,” for all its extensive world-building, large and varied cast of characters, and multiple story threads, somehow still feels too contained, too shallow. It holds the viewer at arm’s length, introducing us to many different groups and individuals but often only in the broadest sense. This is Paul’s journey, but despite a promising opening, “Dune” ultimately does little wrestling with the themes of identity, coming of age, or the rise a prophesied leader. And the film largely sidesteps the issue of colonialism even though it is the driving force of this story, as the different houses move in on planets like Arrakis to control their native inhabitants and resources. A lot of this will likely be rectified in part two, especially in regards to the Fremen. Despite the film opening with voiceover narration from Chani describing the beauty of her world, the bulk of “Dune” confines their portrayal to that of a vaguely menacing group, given voice primarily by tribe leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and the half-Fremen Imperium ecologist Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who turns in one of the best performances in the film, one that conveys courage, nobility, and pride in her planet and her people). Zendaya, contrary to the way Warner Brothers has been putting her to work on the press circuit, is barely in this installment, but when we do see and particularly hear her, there’s something entrancing to her that makes her intriguing beyond merely being a steady presence in Paul’s visions.
In fact, the whole cast is really quite good, with the exception of Chalamet, who comes off as a little too broody without conveying any of Paul’s inner turmoil. Jason Momoa, who plays House Atreides swordsman Duncan Idaho (so far the winner of this year’s award for best character name), is arguably the cast member having the most fun, but also strikes up the most heartfelt relationship with Paul, as both the young man’s friend and one of his mentors. The supporting cast is sprinkled with welcome familiar faces, like Josh Brolin as House Atreides weapons master Gurney Halleck, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Atreides Mentat (a human whose abilities mimic those of computers) Thufir Hawat, David Dastmalchian as Harkonnen Mentat Piter De Vries, and Dave Bautista as the Baron’s nephew Glossu Rabban. We don’t see a ton of the Baron himself in this movie, but Skarsgård turns him, an individual who could so easily have come off as silly as his globular form levitates into the air, into a terrifying villain. Villenueve also seems to have made an effort to place the women in the story in more central roles, and I came away the most impressed with Ferguson. Jessica clearly loves and wants to protect her son, but she also bears the burden of having defied the Bene Gesserit in bearing a son instead of a daughter. There is a regalness to her, but also a clear emotional core that feels absent in several of the other main characters. And Charlotte Rampling is another scene-stealer as the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, whose voice is chilling behind her veil; the scene in which she tests Paul is one of the most compelling scenes in the movie.
The film’s casting is thankfully pretty diverse, although it’s also worth noting that Villenueve’s “Dune,” like Herbert’s novel, lifts a lot of its aesthetic (from Hans Zimmer’s score to the use of certain Arabic words that are often mispronounced) from Middle Eastern and North African cultures without involving any MENA people in the film in significant roles (for a more in-depth discussion on this, I recommend reading critic Roxana Hadadi’s review of “Dune” for Polygon, and Hanna Flint’s review for The New Arab).
Even though the bulk of “Dune” carries the muted, dreary color palette that pervades so many blockbuster movies today, it’s still an absolutely gorgeous spectacle that makes the most of light, shadows, and the vast landscapes that dominate the film. Villenueve and cinematographer Greg Fraser make use of plenty of long shots to further convey how small individual figures are in these massive environments, even in the interiors. “Dune” is slow but evenly-paced, and the action scenes we do see are engaging and visually rich, like one in which soldiers rise to the field of battle from underneath the sand dunes. The seat-shaking soundscape is rich, and the costumes by Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan sell this world even more. The water-retaining suits that the Fremen developed for survival on Arrakis may be the most iconic visual, but the elaborate veils and flowing gowns like the one that the Bene Gesserit wear are beautiful and feminine in a way that we don’t see in enough sci-fi movies. It’s all an entrancing combination, and despite containing elements that could be considered goofy in other hands (see: giant sand worms), “Dune” takes itself seriously in a way that few sci-fi stories do anymore—in fact, the last time I probably uttered a sentence like that was in regards to Villenueve’s 2016 film “Arrival.” But while Villenueve’s vision for imagining worlds that we see in his previous work, like “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049,” is here, the emotional undercurrent that runs through those movies is not. “Dune” is aggressively one half of a movie, although I suppose I can’t fault it too much for that. As much as I wish it felt like a more fulfilling experience in and of itself, based on my admittedly limited knowledge of the source material, it ends this portion of the story in the right place. Fans of the books who know where this story is headed will likely be satisfied with what Villenueve has accomplished here. And the second half of the story—which I’m still intrigued by—probably will give me more to go on, compared to this film, the bulk of which is set up for what’s to come. But supplementary material shouldn’t be required to enjoy a film, and as it stands, I need “Dune” to give me more to connect to if I’m going to invest time and energy in this universe.
“Dune” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until November 21. Runtime: 155 minutes. Rated PG-13.