It was once said that Frank Herbert's Dune was such an advanced, complex and inherently bizarre work of literary fiction, that it simply could not be interpreted into film in a satisfying manner. That, at least to some degree, proved true with David Lynch' attempt in 1984, an ambitious yet ultimately flawed and shallow shadow of its source material. Lynch was one hot name in Hollywood at the time, with a few success stories to his name, as it is with Denis Villeneuve today. So has he tamed the untamable where another prodigal son had previously failed?
Villeneuve's Dune is an entirely different beast than Lynch', grand in almost every conceivable aspect, almost regal as it shines like a pitch black diamond bending the light. It's main draw is its scale, it's sheer faith in the grandeur, the splendour of its vistas, and while it has all the hallmarks of the beginning of a larger tale, it does satisfy, and dramatizes Herbert's novel in a way previously thought impossible.
To the uninitiated, Dune is the tale of houses and of planet Arakkis. In a distant future, the known universe is ruled by a single emperor, but powerful houses, baronies if you will, exist alongside the imperium. At the center of this universe sits a single desert planet, home to the mystical "spice", the single raw material that's essential to interstellar travel. At the beginning of our tale, House Atreides, is given control of Arakkis by the emperor, and the brutal House Harkonnen is forced to retreat after 80 years of spice distribution control. But behind this gesture an evil plan is brewing, and it's up to heir to the Atreides house, Paul, to stop it before it's too late.
Again, even this brief attempt at describing factions, motivations and characters falls way short of the sheer complexity of Herbert's novel, but Villeneuve does, in most cases, handle it's sheer amount of critical information with care. Sure, some exposition isn't as delicately handed, leaning into Paul's "videobooks" for knowledge of the Arakkis inhabitants Fremen, and of spice in general, but most of the time, the script glides by with sufficient panache, power and determination, that it feels sufficiently convincing. The bizarre nature of Lynch' take gives way for a brutal, brooding tone, brisk pacing and a sense of theatricality that one gulps in in awe for most of the movie's running time.
It's of course led by simply incredible performances across the board, from Timothée Chalamet to Zendaya, from Javier Bardem to Oscar Isaac, from Josh Brolin to Jason Momoa, they all put in the work, making a pretty wide gallery of characters distinct, believable and worthwhile pawns in a larger narrative. Sure, at points there are times where one feels as if we didn't get to spend enough time with each of these characters, and particularly in the second act there are points with the scale, the destruction, the epic weight of the narrative comes at the cost of further characterization.
So even if Brolin's Gurney is distinctly formed and presented, we simply aren't given enough time with him, and that can be said for a number of the main characters. The brisk pace keeps wooshing us along, leaving little breathing room.
The visual nature of the movie also leaves little breathing room, but in the best way possible. Fantastically cut, color graded, shot and choreographed, Dune is sheer visual audacity, almost defiant in its ambition. The larger-than-life space ships, the sand worms, even the interior decoration screams decadence. It's one breathtaking image after the next, pummeling the senses to a pulp, and leaving you hungry for more. This is only accentuated by one of Hans Zimmer's best soundtracks ever. It's close to his The Dark Knight Rises opus in scale, but equally subversive too.
Is the movie perfect then? No, there are less convincing scenes, many of which contain close-quarters combat. The personal shield generators are canon of course, but the way they are implemented makes fighting rather hollow, lacking the sensory oomph that the rest of the movie revels in. Oh, and this bares mentioning - Villeneuve is blatant in his statement, that this is part one, and therefore expects few conclusions here. This is set-up, which will rub some the wrong way, particularly if the movie does not do well enough to warrant a sequel, but what a set-up it is.
Villeneuve continues where Blade Runner 2049 left off, which continued where Arrival left off, a trail of bewitching cinematic achievements, each more endearing than the last. He is the most talented director working in Hollywood today, and now that he has conquered Dune, where Lynch failed, there really is no stopping him. Here's to hoping he actually gets to finish though.