The spice exists on only one planet in the entire universe: A desolate, dry planet with vast deserts. Hidden away within the rocks of these deserts are a people known as the Fremen, who have long held a prophecy that a man would come, a messiah, who would lead them to true freedom. The planet is Arrakis. Also known as Dune.
The above narration comes from 1984’s Dune, the first time Frank Herbert’s legendarily unfilmable novel reached the silver screen. David Lynch was the director, and Dino De Laurentiis was the producer, but it was not the first time someone tried to bring Herbert’s 1965 novel to cinematic fruition. In the 1970s, Chilean cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky planed an ambitious no-detail-overlooked-or-left-out 14-hour movie that would have cost millions and starred Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger. But Jodorowsky’s Dune never made it past the planning stages—though a great deal of the work H. R. Geiger, Chris Foss, Jean Giraud, and Dan O’Bannon did for Jodorowski ended up in other movies. For this, you must seek out Jodorowsky’s Dune, one of the best documentaries about a movie that never was.
Then came Italian mega-producer De Laurentiis, who did manage to bring Dune to the big screen with Lynch in tow. That version—or versions—was a flop by most standards. Dune failed to make its money back at the box office, critics panned it, and Lynch has done just about everything he can to distance himself from it. However, it did introduce Lynch to actor Kyle McLachlan, so it wasn’t a total loss.
That brings us to now and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, co-written with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth. If those previous Dunes needed to fail so that this one could succeed, then so be it—though I’m not sure that’s saying much. Villeneuve and company were wise to break the story into parts, both for narrative and financial purposes, even if this means that Dune: Part One feels incomplete. Not that it matters much, the images, particularly if you see the movie in IMAX, are so overwhelming you barely notice the story.
Dune is a big movie. Massive, really. Sets and space ships and landscapes dwarf the characters. The work between the costume department (Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan), production design (Patrice Vermette), and the visual effects team are so complementary that Dune goes beyond believability into some sort of hyper-cinematic realm. Practically every movie relies on special effects these days; Dune makes them look like child’s play.
And cinematographer Greig Fraser and editor Joe Walker make sure you appreciate every bit of it. Be it is a simple close-up of Timothée Chalamet’s face or a massive battle between ground troops, aircraft, and space ships. Nothing is rushed; everything is enjoyed. Some of it might come across as indulgent—say, Hans Zimmer’s score of drones and screeches—but that would be missing the point. The point here is spectacle, and Villeneuve gives you so much you almost forget there’s a story in here somewhere.
The plot is cumbersome but boils down to the standard hero’s journey monomyth. The planet Arrakis contains spice. For the inhabitants, the spice is a powerful hallucinogen that has vast medicinal powers. For everyone else in the galaxy, spice makes interstellar travel possible. He who harvests the spice is wealthy beyond imagination. That’s where the House Harkonnen, led by Beast Rabben Harkonnen (Dave Bautista), comes in. Then the emperor decrees that Harkonnen is out, and the House of Atreides—led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), Lady Leto (Rebecca Ferguson), and their son, Paul (Chalamet)—is in. You don’t have to squint to see a long history of colonialism in Dune, but what the movie has to say about it will be left to subsequent installments. Instead, we have battles, magnificent sets, and Paul slowly realizing his powers and role in this story.
The only real disappointment is that Dune doesn’t get much further than a standard first act before the credits roll. It’s stunning to look at but lacks stickiness. In time, we will judge Dune in relation to the subsequent installments, much like how we view individual Star Wars episodes or installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But for now, when none of those sequels exists, Dune feels unfinished. But it sure is pretty to look at.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve
Based on the novel by Frank Herbert
Produced by Cale Boyter, Joseph M. Caracciolo Jr., Mary Parent, Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Zendaya
Warner Bros., Rated PG-13, Running time 155 minutes, Opens in theaters and on HBO Max Oct. 22, 2021.