An ornithopter, a little dragonfly-shaped airship from the highly anticipated blockbuster “Dune,” cruises over the sands of the arid planet Arrakis, its brown-and-almost-white contours stretched out across the IMAX screen like a five-story meringue. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) are aboard, on their way to inspect a giant mining vehicle with bureaucrat Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), who will decide whether or not the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) has cheated the duke and his family. Then, all of a sudden, we catch a glimpse of the worm, and we understand: We’re here to watch a tiny speck of a person try to bend IMAX-sized forces to his will and be transformed by them, instead.
We’re here to watch a tiny speck of a person try to bend IMAX-sized forces to his will and be transformed by them, instead.
Frank Herbert’s novel “Dune” — with its frustrating mixture of space bureaucracy, mystical lore and pulse-pounding, monster-fighting action — is a hard book to adapt. Its power depends heavily on the reader’s willingness to put up with half a novel of humdrum pulp sci-fi action and world-building. The reason the book’s fans power through that uninspired first half has to do with its incredibly weird and eccentric second half, which upends all its space opera tropes and instead draws heavily on traditions of nomadic life in the Arabian Peninsula and other regions that fascinated Herbert. (One heroic clan, the Fremen, are explicitly holy warriors; there are lots of references in the book and its sequels to a cataclysmic war called the Butlerian Jihad.) The novel’s daring remains undimmed today, even though it has inspired dozens of adaptors, official and unofficial, including George Lucas, David Lynch and French comics genius Moebius. At one point, Alejandro Jodorowsky had cast Salvador Dalí as the emperor. There’s an entire movie, “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” about how he never got to shoot his version.
Director Denis Villeneuve has chosen to adapt only the mechanical first half of the book into “Dune: Part 1,” a risky move as it requires Villeneuve to build some visual eccentricity of his own to push the story along. It’s a sci-fi movie on a big-ticket blockbuster scale akin to the lengthy two-part finale of Marvel’s “Avengers” movies, but here Villeneuve manages to make something that is grand in terms other than sheer length and plot complication. His gigantic spaceships, which are the size and shape of floating brutalist buildings, stagger us. The planet Arrakis — Dune itself — is both intensely barren and hostile and seems full of deep lore. While these special effects suggest a giant world, his minimalist exposition lets us fill in many of the gaps for ourselves. We’re left to wonder, not just observe. It’s a feeling I’ve missed.
At the center of all this is Chalamet’s Paul, a casting choice that confused me until I saw how huge and hostile Villeneuve had made everything and what a stark counterpoint he had in this skinny, doe-eyed, prettily unkempt actor. Paul has to grow into his role as leader of men, and Chalamet is callow and boyish; it’s hard to imagine him acquiring any of the gravitas that Isaac radiates as his father. Watching the film, I realized that this is Villeneuve’s point. Paul has leadership thrust upon him; he is deliberately small and childlike in the face of indifferent forces that can tear him apart with a whisper. His closeness to his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) emphasizes how small he is, but when he is initiated into her order of shadowy psychics, we begin to see how his perceived weaknesses will become strengths. And when, at the end of the film, he has to fight a duel to the death, Villeneuve makes us regret the end of Paul’s innocence in a way he couldn’t have with a cockier performer.
Lynch’s “Dune” adaptation from 1984 is both unwatchably clunky in its pacing and a kind of surrealist almost-masterpiece. Lynch was given a huge budget (in contrast to his smaller, better-regarded films from that era), and Lynch fans may find it fascinating to watch what, exactly, an avant-garde director does with all that cash and a sci-fi novel. It’s a movie that both begs to be remade and one that sets the bar impossibly high.
Villeneuve has opted out of that challenge. His “Dune” is perfectly his own, and when its pace is leisurely, it’s with intention and consummate craftsmanship. Perversely, Warner Bros. has said publicly that Villeneuve will only be allowed to finish the project if the movie performs well, including on HBO Max. Perhaps it will. But its scope and scale are the kind of big-screen experience I thought existed only in memory. And its subject, the forces of history brought to bear on one struggling person, is powerful in direct proportion to the size of the screen you’re watching it on.