A contemporary adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune has long been anticipated by science-fiction fans, and after almost a year past its intended release date, the film has landed in theaters and on HBO Max. But will it capture the hearts of loyal fans as well as new audiences? Maybe.
Tackling Herbert’s sweeping 500-page novel complete with maps and a multi-page “Terminology of the Imperium” (yes, the book comes with its own glossary so readers can understand what in the imperium they’re reading) is no easy feat. Director Denis Villeneuve is an experienced sci-fi storyteller, having directed Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. His respect for the Herbert’s work materializes on screen through breath-taking longshots of rocky shores, desert sunsets, and, well, dunes. Along with his director of photography, Greig Fraser, he transports us into a desert world that hasn’t felt foreign since Star Wars: A New Hope graced theatrical screens.
He also provides a stellar cast of A-list actors who seem carefully chosen to match the characters they bring to life, certainly more than David Lynch’s 1984 attempt. Although Kyle MacLachlan was only a few years older than Timothée Chalamet when he played Paul Atreides in Lynch’s version, he already looked like a grown man. No offense to Chalamet’s manhood, but his lanky body has a youthful quality, a fact that Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho pokes fun at during one of the only moments of levity in the film. Joining Hollywood’s current It Boy and Aquaman is Oscar Isaac as the Duke, Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica, Stellan Skarsgard as Vladamir Harkonnen, and Zendaya in more dream sequences than actual scenes (her character Chani features more prominently in the sequel, which has already been greenlit and set for release in 2023, so we’ll likely be seeing more of her in the future). While the cast is wonderful and will satisfy Dune fans and newcomers alike, the pacing and tone may not.
Villeneuve’s first installment of Dune is essentially a long introduction, two and a half hours of setup. If you are looking for a fast-paced, action-packed, sci-fi adventure, Dune is not it. The first major action scene comes about an hour into the film. It is also the only major action scene. Dune the movie is a slow-paced, contemplative piece, much like Dune the novel. To modern readers, the book may seem slow and outdated, written in omniscient third-person with unnecessary inner thoughts of every character jarring against dialogue. In moments of tension, Herbert destroys scenes by forcing the reader into a character’s deep thoughts like this one of Jessica’s:
She seeks an answer from me; the meaning of a knife. She’s called the Shadout in the Chakobsa tongue. Knife, that’s “Death Maker” in Chakobsa. She’s getting restive. I must answer now.
And then Jessica answers. Contemporary readers don’t need their characters to alert them to when they plan to speak. Finding the novel boring and excruciatingly slow, I put it down. If that makes me a cretin, so be it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the film.
The film more than makes up for the moments when not a whole lot is happening plot-wise with gorgeous vistas and surprising, endearing moments between characters. I believe if you love Herbert’s novel, you will enjoy Villeneuve’s adaptation. To his credit, Villeneuve doesn’t rush the story. He leaves audiences to sit with characters and worlds and allows us time to understand what everyone is talking about without a glossary in our hands (something actually distributed to audience goers for Lynch’s version). Whether viewers who haven’t read Dune will feel the same remains to be seen. Two and a half hours is a long time for today’s Snapchat-instant-gratification world to wait to meet Zendaya only for the credits to roll right afterwards. However, the fact that the sequel was announced a couple days after Dune premiered confirms that it satisfied at least some who watched it. Whether they were die-hard Herbert fans or newcomers to this world, who can say? But as someone who couldn’t trudge through the book I am still looking forward to the sequel film.