The definition of “epic” is a work of narrative art in an elevated style that recounts the deeds of a legendary or historical hero. Such a hero tends to be legendary because of the backdrop, their individual acts taking place within a context that shapes or reshapes the world. Therefore, a truly epic realization of a tale is one that provides equal focus on the macro and microscale.
Frank Herbert’s “Dune” offers this type of tale and scales. Herbert’s hero, Paul Atreides, heir to a major power within an intergalactic Imperium, comes to a desert planet where a previous substance will decide the future of his society and trillions of lives. Therefore, a cinematic adaptation must transport the viewer from the immense gulf of space to the infinitesimal specks of sand, dust and crucially, Spice. Famously described as unfilmable, and filmed, by all accounts badly, by David Lynch in 1984, Denis Villeneuve’s film arrives, after Covid-19 delays, with anticipation the size of a giant sand worm.
The question, therefore, is does Villeneuve’s film meet the anticipation that has grown ever since this adaptation was announced? The answer is a resounding YES, as Dune is a genuinely epic tale that thoroughly immerses the viewer in its world. Despite the advanced technology, bizarre and disturbing human enhancements, interplanetary politics, shadowy organizations and curious states of heightened consciousness, Dune offers clear storytelling, stunning visuals and well-delineated characters.
Villeneuve along with co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth streamline Herbert’s narrative, beginning with a prologue complete with voiceover from Chani (Zendaya, “Spider-Man: Far From Home”), that explains the exploitation of the planet Arrakis and the power players who compete for financial, political and military influence. This struggle for power, centered around a key heroic figure, is not an original story and the influence of “Dune” is evident on “Star Wars,” “Avatar” and many another space opera. When characters refer to “using the Voice” and “learning the Way,” the viewer might expect mention of the Force, while the Spice extracted from Arrakis is as much a McGuffin as unobtanium. Originality, however, is of little consequence when the world-building is realized so perfectly. Arrakis as well as the other worlds of the Imperium are brought to vivid life through a cinematic experience that induces awe and wonder in equal measure.
Despite the stacked cast and, let’s face it, weird names, Dune gives its characters time and space to breath. After the opening montage, we are quickly introduced to hero Paul (Timothée Chalamet, “The King”), his parents Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”) and Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”) and their entourage including advisers Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”) and Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson, “Tower Heist”), pilot and scout Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa, “Aquaman”) and Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen, “The Assassin”). We also meet the thuggish yet loyal Beast Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista, “Hotel Artemis”) and his malevolent and scheming uncle, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”). The cast is further fleshed out with the ominous Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling, “Red Sparrow”), Dr. Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) and the mysterious Fremen of Arrakis, including Chani and Stilgar (Javier Bardem, “mother!”). The characters feel fleshed out, all with their own agendas, and Villeneuve does not overburden them with expository dialogue. Despite the complexity of the world-building, the viewer often learns new details as characters do, these details tied to wider plot elements and given emotional weight as characters also learn of manipulation, ambition and betrayal.
This efficiency demonstrates Villeneuve’s consistent faith in the image. Villeneuve is one of the few modern directors who trust that the audience will fill in the gaps. We don’t need to know how the technology works or why the Spice has the effects it does, because when cinema is this enveloping it transports the viewer into the film’s world, thus we accept the material around us just as the characters do who are familiar with the world. Director of photography Grieg Fraser envelops the viewer through breathtaking visuals, including the sandscapes of Arrakis along with other planets that, by contrast, are drenched in rain. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s eerie, ethereal and often choral score, the film delivers a sensory overload, immersing the viewer in a sandstorm of cinematic magic. Production designer Patrice Vermette and co-costume designers Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West create costumes, buildings and space vessels that strike the balance between looking functional and futuristic, ensuring that this world feels lived in. Paul’s wonder mirrors that of the viewer as we take in murals, escarpments, training grounds and Fremen culture, all of which feel lived-in, organic and genuine.
Balance may be the central aspect that makes Dune work so well. For all its length and scale, the film is never ponderous and provides visceral action that balances choreography with pain, skill with physicality, plot progression with character development. The scale is balanced from the shifting of sand grains to the gargantuan sand worms, whose appearance carries an impact comparable to the Balrog in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Interpersonal dramas are balanced with the political machinations of the Imperium, as while the Baron plots and Leto negotiates, Paul has a difficult relationship with his mother due to Jessica’s own relationship with her former sisterhood. Mother-son relationships are relatively unusual in epic narratives, so it is refreshing to see the trials that Jessica must endure. Villeneuve balances the different narrative strands perfectly, ensuring that we never spend too long with some characters to forget what others are doing. Stylistically, he balances prolonged takes with fast cuts, long shots of the landscape with intimate close-ups, turning the features of Chalamet, Ferguson and Momoa into landscapes in their own right. A judicious use of slo-mo never overstays its welcome, helping to convey the elevated experience of the Spice without becoming indulgent. Thanks to this balance as well as every cast and crew member delivering on all cylinders, Dune is a film that delivers on every level. It is an awe-inspiring, intense, dazzling and magnificent experience, its only shortcoming that it leaves the viewer wanting more. And since “Dune: Part Two” has been greenlit, Spice-hungry viewers can prepare to return to Arrakis…