Dune is directed by Denis Villanueve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) and is the second feature adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1967 sci-fi novel of the same name. Set in the far future of 10191, the film stars Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides, the son of a noble family that rules the ocean planet, Caladan. By decree of the emperor of the galaxy, House Atreides inherits control of the desert planet, Arrakis, thus gaining control of the production of Spice, a hallucinogenic substance natural to Arrakis and the most valuable resource in the galaxy. This shift in power spells danger for the family, and they find themselves targeted by rival factions who wish to cement their dominance over the flow of Spice. Paul realizes that in order to preserve the legacy of House Atreides, he must overcome his fears and embrace a destiny much larger than he ever could’ve imagined.
I saw Dune (1984) for the first time about two years ago. I came across it late at night on Amazon Prime. Thinking I was getting some high-action sci-fi fantasy along the same vein as Star Wars, I got comfy under the bedsheets, put it on, and, after about thirty minutes or so, I fell asleep. I tried giving it another shot a few months later, and while that time I managed to stay awake throughout it, to say it failed to make an impression would be a drastic understatement. As much as I admire David Lynch as a storyteller, I don’t think he was the right person to tell this kind of story. While certainly aiming to be an 1980s sci-fi epic, the film comes off as dry, dull and dreadfully unengaging.
Denis Villanueve’s version has the opposite effect. Here you have a filmmaker whose visual style actually complements the substance of Herbert’s book. Granted, I’ve never read the Dune books so I can’t claim to be all-knowing about Herbert’s vision. But based on both film adaptations and the research I’ve done on the series, I believe I have a general sense of the overall narrative. From what I can gather, the story of Dune is a story of destiny. It’s about the embracing of one’s destiny, no matter what good or bad that destiny may bring (feel free to tell me I’m wrong, Dune fans). It’s a very involved story- a lot of philosophy, a lot of lore, and a lot of politics. Condensing it into a film format is no small feat, and if the film loses focus for even a second, it loses the audience, especially the non-Dune heads.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where this film succeeds. It takes a juicy, intricate sci-fi narrative and makes it accessible for casual viewers without sacrificing its mature thematic elements. The world feels lived in. It isn’t some glossy, polished neon-drenched cityscape or destitute archaic wasteland. Villanueve’s vision of the Dune universe is analogous and grand. The sets are stunning, the designs subtle yet otherworldly. The machines seem rustic, heavy, and realistically functional. The cinematography is so good you’ll want to take each frame and mount it on your wall. I watched the film on HBOMax, and even through the smaller screen, its grandiosity still shone through.
Not only does it work on a visual, but is also succeeds in the story department. Both the 1984 and 2021 versions are saddled with good actors- actors who can elevate characters that, in my opinion, aren’t that interesting. However, they’re working with different scripts and different direction. The results are palpable: the performances in the Lynch’s version are stiff, cold, and dull; whereas the performances in the Villanueve’s version feel more humanized and nuanced. The cast under Villanueve- filled with powerhouses like Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, and Oscar Isaac, to name a few- bring out their characters’ personalities, thus boosting their relatability, and thereby making it easier for us to get engrossed in their story.
Then there’s the bare bones of its narrative, which manages to convert dense sci-fi elements into something digestible for a casual audience. It packs a hefty amount of lore, complex politics, and intergalactic philosophies into a two and a half hour runtime, and does so in a way that’s organic and never too inside-baseball. Even someone like me who’s unfamiliar with the Dune series can follow the plot through and through. The only downside is that it feels incomplete, which is excusable given that this movie is only half of a two-part story. The events unfold at a steady pace until the mid-to-end part of act three, at which time the length starts wearing you down.
Dune (2021) is truly an epic story. The filmmakers have crafted a movie that’s mesmerizing in its scope, visuals, and storytelling. It does what an adaptation should do- adapt a story for a mass audience. And it doesn’t do it in a lazy way. The filmmakers put in the effort towards a narrative balancing act of satisfying the Dune fans and paint an epic experience that’s accessible to everybody. The film is yet another masterpiece on Villanueve’s mantle. I stupidly didn’t see it in theaters, but trust me, I will not make that same mistake with the sequel.