For many years, my only impression of Dune was that it was to Star Wars as Game of Thrones is to Lord of the Rings: the “adult version,” which is to say, the version that mistakes darkness for sophistication, cynicism for maturity, explicit sex and violence for being “grown up.” Last year, reading Frank Herbert’s novel for the first time, I had to revise that comparison. It would be closer to the truth to say that Dune is to Star Wars as Lord of the Rings is to The Chronicles of Narnia. In Tolkien’s terms, Star Wars and Chronicles of Narnia are allegories – fairy tales, more concerned with symbolism than realism – while Dune and Lord of the Rings are histories, which implies a certain level of plausibility, as well as a certain breadth of scope and depth of detail. Though the novel has compelling characters and intriguing themes, Herbert’s most remarkable achievement in Dune is the density, the richness, and the convincingly alien quality of the futuristic universe he sketches. Indeed, I am hard pressed to think of anyone who has come closer to matching Tolkien’s vast imagination and painstaking attention to detail.
All the same, reports that Dune is some sort of profoundly deep, complex, unadaptable tome are somewhat exaggerated. Numerous failed attempts over the years – by such big names as David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, no less – have given the text a bit of a “white whale” quality, but this is not Gravity’s Rainbow, for heaven’s sake. What makes the novel such a challenging and satisfying read is not the complicated plotting so much as the oblique way Herbert doles out the details of his world, littering his prose with so many unfamiliar proper nouns, made-up languages, and references to fictitious historical events that the reader is forever scrambling to catch up. (Like Lord of the Rings, it has appendices.) The problem is not that the plot of Dune is too labyrinthine; the problem is that its greatest pleasures are uniquely literary.
Enter Denis Villeneuve, one of the finest directors currently working in Hollywood. At the close of 2019, when I was ranking the fifty best movies of the decade, five of Villeneuve’s films made the list – a tenth of the total number, and more than any other director. (Four of those films also made the “Best of the 2010s” list compiled by the FilmFisher team.) Villeneuve belongs to the same school of filmmaking as a Christopher Nolan or a David Fincher: he crafts darkly heady, adult-oriented entertainments that nonetheless have significant popular appeal. His early English language films – Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario – are serious-minded thrillers, thick with the same atmosphere of decadent gloom that threatens to suffocate Fincher’s darkest movies (such as Se7en, though it is probably coincidence that, in Dune, Timothée Chalamet inquires, “What’s in the box?”). At the same time, Villeneuve is more of a humanist than Fincher; his films compensate for ugliness with sympathy and moral clarity, both of which are typically absent from Fincher’s misanthropic vision. Villeneuve’s recent forays into cerebral science fiction (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) recall Christopher Nolan’s turn towards the likes of Inception, Interstellar, and Tenet – and yet, as a rule, Villeneuve’s work is less chilly, more emotionally astute.
If Villeneuve’s Dune is not quite the best of both worlds, it is, at the very least, a fine marriage between director and material. Villeneuve’s first major strategic move is to split the film in two: Dune: Part One, as the opening title card calls it, covers about half of Herbert’s novel, which gives Villeneuve the space to approximate the patient, methodical pacing of the source material. At the same time, he streamlines, whittling the thing down to its most basic essence. Certainly, some nuance is lost in translation, but this need not be a criticism. Like Peter Jackson tackling Lord of the Rings, Villeneuve wants to make this unwieldy epic as digestible, accessible, and broadly appealing as possible. The fact that it seems so effortless – too easy, almost – only speaks to how sharp, smart, and sturdy his craftsmanship is.
At the same time, he does not condescend to his audience. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Dune would feel like a cheap Star Wars knock-off – unjustly, yes, since Dune came first, but even so. (Remember how audiences reacted to John Carter, even though Edgar Rice Burroughs predates Frank Herbert and George Lucas both.) Villeneuve heads off such complaints with sheer conviction. The very first thing one notices about the film is its sense of enormous scale; even the minuscule typeface of the credits presupposes that the viewer is watching the film on a massive screen. The shots of the spaceships – immense, nearly abstract shapes floating stilly over planetary spheres – are more 2001 than Star Wars. In a sort of Russian nesting doll effect, humans appear as tiny, antlike specks next to colossal spaceships – which are, in their turn, utterly dwarfed by even larger ships. Watching Dune is a little bit like going to that room in the American Museum of Natural History where scale models range all the way from a quark to the planet Jupiter.
For all the film’s capacious spectacle, Villeneuve also finds hints of poetry in the little details: quietly rustling wind chimes, sand wafting across once-pristine industrial surfaces, the way light shines through a veil to bring out the features of a woman’s face. Certain recurring images – a lone beetle crawling in the sand, a bull’s head mounted on a wall – become weighted with more tragic resonance every time the film returns to them. Beyond its ostentatious visual grandeur and the insistent droning of Hans Zimmer’s suitably unearthly score, Dune is set apart by its mood of intense seriousness, its nearly humorless gravitas.
As Roger Ebert famously put it, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it,” and this is especially important in Dune’s case, because “what it’s about” is rather familiar. There is an interstellar power struggle going on, with various factions (the honorable Atreides and their rivals, the despicable Harkonnens) jockeying for control of valuable resources. Said resources put both factions in conflict with an oppressed people group, the Fremen: harsh but admirable, fatally underestimated (we immediately suspect) by the powers that be. There are tests, betrayals, battles, chases, heroic sacrifices. At the center of it all is a young man – Chalamet’s Paul Atreides – who is destined to become a great savior, leading humanity (theoretically) into a better future.
Although nearly all of the characters in Dune are types we have seen elsewhere – gruff mentors, noble fathers, and so on – they are brought to life here by clear, efficient writing and a cast filled to the brim with talented performers. As Paul, Chalamet gives the film’s alien sights and sounds a human center of gravity. He is still only a boy, though he is being formed into a leader of men, and Chalamet persuasively embodies both strength and a tenuous innocence. In one scene, he is holding his own against Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) in a practice duel; in the next, he is smiling with the delight of a little child as he runs to greet Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Moreover, Chalamet captures a certain reserved, inward-looking quality crucial to the Paul of the novels, who experiences his destiny as a burden, and whose visions of the future are a source of more torment than solace. When Paul is told he may be the predestined messiah, Chalamet registers ambivalence with nothing more than a forlorn upward twist of his eyebrows.
“You have more than one birthright, boy,” a priestess (Charlotte Rampling) tells Paul, and Dune is most involving when it focuses on its hero’s relationships with his mentors, all of whom are pushing him along different paths toward adulthood. On the one hand, there is the political responsibility embodied by his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac); on the other, there is the messianic role prescribed for him by his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). On the one hand, there is Brolin’s flinty, severe Gurney Halleck, who throws a sword at Paul’s back to toughen him up. (Paul affectionately refers to him as “old man.”) On the other, there is Jason Momoa’s warmhearted Duncan Idaho, who frequently greets his young charge by bellowing “M’boy!” and scooping him off the ground in a hug.
In a film crowded with too many strong performances to enumerate here, Isaac makes an especially poignant impression as Leto, the doomed Atreides patriarch. As Isaac plays him, the Duke is a man guided by the conviction that his life is not his own. He is resolutely committed to his responsibilities, though he permits himself to remember bygone freedoms with fond sadness: “I wanted to be a pilot,” he confides to Paul, and there is a world of regret in the pause that follows. Duke Leto embodies the ethos of House Atreides, a quixotic noblesse oblige that prizes honor over self-preservation and is therefore doomed to lose in a Machiavellian political contest. Leto’s fate has been decided even before he signs his own death warrant in his first scene, and on some level, he knows it. That he proceeds anyway may be hubris, or it may be simple resignation to the fact that honor leaves him no other choice.
Duncan Idaho is also fated to die from the beginning of the film, and he responds the same way. When he hears that the prescient Paul dreamed of his death, Duncan brushes it off with a laugh. “I’m not going to die,” he says, patting Paul’s shoulder, but I am not convinced he means it. Duncan assures Paul he will not die for the same reason terminally ill parents might keep certain facts from young children – to spare their innocence for a little while longer. Like Leto, Duncan accords greater importance to his duties than his life, but unlike Leto, Duncan seems profoundly content in those duties. In the past, Jason Momoa’s work has always struck me as merely tolerable – on those occasions, that is, when it has not been downright obnoxious – but here, he has somehow found the perfect role for his talents. His performance as Duncan Idaho is pitched somewhere in between the rugged, sturdy nobility of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn and the insouciant, roguish charm of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. Duncan is able to make light of his own death not because he is cocky and thinks himself invincible, but because he is entirely at ease in a role that may require him to give his life at any time. When he knows he is about to die, he salutes Paul one last time, and if you are watching closely, you may see a small smile forming almost imperceptibly on his face.
It is this salute that Paul emulates at the film’s climax, given to his opponent before they duel to the death. Dune: Part One concludes rather abruptly, but it engineers an intriguing ending on the way out. In order to join the Fremen in the desert, Paul must kill one of their number, and in so doing, he must put an end to his old life: “When you take a life, you take your own.” The climax, then, brings together all the major influences that have guided Paul to this point: Leto, Duncan, Gurney, Jessica. Before the fight, Paul contemplates the signet ring he inherited from his father; he salutes, as Duncan did before his own death; and the duel recalls his practice with Gurney, who told him, “You fight when the necessity arises, no matter the mood.” When the fight is over, Paul – now bereaved of his mentors – must choose his own path.
I appreciate a film that ends on a downbeat, open-ended note, but nonetheless, it must be said that the film’s greatest shortcoming is its nagging feeling of incompleteness. Even compared to other trilogy-starters that tell only part of a story – Fellowship of the Ring, say – Dune: Part One is not entirely satisfying as a self-contained film. If one saw only the first half of Lawrence of Arabia, concluding at the intermission, I am not sure one could say it was a great film; such a judgment would necessarily have something tentative about it. My provisional judgment, then, is that Villeneuve’s Dune is a remarkable achievement. I am eager to be proven right by Part Two.