Dune filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) has said that his upcoming blockbuster is meant to be accessible for those that have never read Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. But as someone who finished the dense and genre redefining book mere minutes before their screening started, it’s difficult to see how casual observers may latch on to the solidly constructed but undeniably esoteric tale (even with a spoiler-free breakdown of the Duniverse from a critically acclaimed expert).
Dune is meant to be a mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey that follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a gifted young man born into a great destiny, who must travel to the most dangerous planet in the galaxy to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode in conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence—a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential—only those who can conquer their fear will survive. But storyline only represents a fraction of the story’s scope.
Villeneuve is known for visual splendor and his version of Dune is no different. The scale and scope of the spectacle cements the filmmaker as a master of the craft. The artistry and awe of Dune is unrivaled. The weathered, industrial sets of the desert planet Arrakis, illuminated by the yellows and oranges of the hostile sun, contrasts with the sleek grey-black stillness of the intergalactic society sliding through space with ease. The enormity of interstellar travel is only matched by the seismic power of the infamous sandworms. But it’s telling that the grandeur is most affecting when there isn’t a human face present in the shot.
In the novel, Herbert utilizes the vast narrative real estate to flesh out each character’s internal monologues. This provides the audience not only with much-needed exposition about this feudal society of the stars, but also insight. Much like our protagonist Paul Atreides, readers experience something of a mental awakening in which the cultural, religious, political, and supernatural notes of the story begin to swirl together. But in condensed film form—and what is meant to be Part I of a two-picture series—these necessary details and textures are sanded down to the detriment of the uninitiated. Interpretation is a powerful weapon of storytelling, but an occasional touch of exposition is a welcome tool as well.
Like the book, much of the film’s story is told through dream sequences and visions. But opaque visuals without the necessary context may leave unfamiliar audiences intrigued, but far from engaged. Moments feel displaced from time — and not always intentionally. This arm’s length approach renders Dune‘s characters unreachable— with the exception of Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica. Despite great performances all around, Atreides feels less like the heroes the novel inspired (such as Luke Skywalker) and more like a generic messiah. His fears are muddled by expansive world-building and his qualifications to lead glossed over with half-finished allegories.
Villeneuve may be the best technical director working in Hollywood right now and the movie is positively majestic. Meditative and atmospheric, it is truly a transportive cinematic experience that deserves the prestige and exclusivity of the big screen. And much like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones before it, the rich and sprawling fictional world of Dune is inviting and engrossing, worthy of further exploration and expansion. But Dune: Part I, as it’s titled in the opening credits, is also lacking in any sense of completion. When Zendaya’s Chani tells Paul at the end that “This is only the beginning,” you’re reminded that the 155 minutes you just spent are throat-clearing for a more substantive story to come. For those unaware of what’s on Dune‘s horizon, they may question if the destination is worth the journey.