Art by Cryo Huren
I’ll begin with the TL;DR:
The movie Dune is one of the greatest novel adaptations I’ve ever seen and also a magnificent sci-fi epic in its own right. If you like EVE, you’ll probably love this movie. If you haven’t already, go see it in the theater, and soon.
What I Wanted in Dune
This first section is background on what I look for in movies. Skip to the next section if you want to get straight to Dune.
I’m a literature nerd (I mean teacher) by training, and I take books seriously. When I see a favorite book has been remade for the screen, I go into the screening (whether or TV or on the big screen) looking for the author’s vision first, not the film director’s creative license. No matter how great the director is, I expect them to faithfully bring to life the author’s vision, not substitute their own.
Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur (1959), Alec Guinness’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TV miniseries, 1979) I consider to be great adaptations of novels for the screen. Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films? Not so much.
I’m also (like people reading this, I presume) a sci-fi nerd, and I take sci-fi movies and TV shows seriously. When I see sci-fi on the screen, I go into it looking for convincing world building. Yes, I want awesome effects and cool characters, but what I really want is a cohesive, immersive sci-fi world. I want to be transported visually and emotionally into a powerful sci-fi setting.
Terminator 2, The Matrix, and Avatar are far and away my favorite sci-fi movies. (Sorry Star Wars franchise. You began well, but . . .) I also love The Expanse, though I haven’t read the books.
What I was looking for going into this latest version of Dune was Frank Herbert’s world and characters brought to life. The moisture-sucking bleakness of Arrakis. The vile corpulence of the Baron. The terrible monstrousness of the sand worms. I wanted to see those places, and I wanted to see the personality of those characters come to life.
What I Found in Dune
Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Frank Herbert’s world overdelivered my expectations in every area, both as an adaptation of a novel and as a sci-fi movie in its own right.
As an Adaptation of a Novel
In adapting any novel for the screen, the most immediate challenge is simply deciding what to show and what not to show. A few hours of screen time is simply not enough to show everything in a book or to capture every word of dialog, so tough decisions have to be made about what to include. Sometimes those decisions are made badly (as when Peter Jackson gutted key sequences in The Lord of the Rings to make space for his own made up material). In this case, the decisions felt basically flawless.
There’s of course a lot left out. The word “mentat” is never once used. There’s no mention of the Butlerian Jihad or the Orange Catholic Bible or Imperial Conditioning. Baron Harkonnen’s sexual proclivities are never even hinted at. But on the other hand, so many things I would have wanted to see are fully present. Shields. Stillsuits. Ornithopters. Sardaukar. Spice. The Gom Jabbar. The Voice. All present, and what’s more, perfectly and efficiently represented.
Villeneuve doesn’t waste time explaining things when he doesn’t have to. Personal shields are a good example. In the Dune universe bullets are useless for combat because everyone wears personal force fields that stop bullets—and anything else fast moving. The only way to penetrate a shield is with an attack that’s slow enough to not trigger the shield, but fast enough to not be blocked or dodged. A handshake won’t trigger the shield. Neither will a perfectly-timed sword blow. The movie doesn’t even have to explain how these shields work. It simply shows them working in way that allows the audience to intuitively grasp what’s going on. Same with Ornithopters. Same with the Voice. Some things like Spice, and Stillsuits, and the Gom Jabbar get brief explanations, but they’re provided efficiently in a way that flows naturally with the scenes. This efficiency allows Dune to bring Frank Herbert’s world fully to life without getting bogged down in nerdy detail. The world just is. I love that about this movie.
I also love how convincing (and even beautiful) their portrayals are. All these things—shields, ornithopters, sand worms—look fantastic. They look convincing. They look right. Obviously Villeneuve has the benefit of modern technology, but if you compare shields and sandworms in this movie to their terrible treatments in 1984, the difference is obvious. And that difference I find to be a key part of the success of this movie.
Not only did Villeneuve use time efficiently, he gave himself time to treat the material properly. I went into this movie unaware that it was only part one. I was also unaware that it’s more than 2.5 hours long. That’s a lot of time to tell half a book by Hollywood standards, and Villeneuve makes good use of that time to let the characters and key scenes breathe naturally. Some may find the pacing too slow (as a high-school classmate of mine whose a fanatical MCU fan. “The pacing had me yawning much of the time,” he said after seeing it). There’s great action in Dune (I’ve never seen a more exciting portrayal of lasers), but this is not an action movie. It’s a novel brought to life. Come prepared for on-screen conversations and character development.
One other strength is worth mentioning. This movie could easily have had a hard R rating. There’s a lot of violence in the book, and there’s some darkly exploitative sexual overtones as well, and in the age of Game of Thrones, it would have been easy to turn this movie into a shockfest. Villeneuve avoids that path completely. There’s many deaths by sword, including many beheadings, but no spurting blood, no close-up views of the carnage. And there’s no nudity, even when it would have fit. Yet in taking this route, Dune doesn’t lose force. The Baron is still ominous and disgusting. The Sardaukar are still fearsome and brutal. In this, I believe Villeneuve demonstrates his skill as a filmmaker. He doesn’t need to reach to the lowest common denominator to make a point, and this movie is better (and will perhaps prove more timeless as our society grows more sensitive to exploitation in film) for it.
As a Sci-Fi Movie
Villeneuve, who previously directed of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, has created a gorgeous sci-fi epic in Dune. As a friend said to me, it’s “operatic in all the best senses.” Three aspects of Villeneuve’s work in particular stick out to me.
First, his reliance on practical effects. I’ve seen it reported that in the entire movie, Timothée Chalamet, the actor who plays the main character Paul Atreides, did two scenes in front of green screen. Everything else was done on real locations or on real sets. This understated use of CGI departs from what has become the norm in sci-fi productions these days and results in a movie that feels like a successor to some of the great early sci-fi triumphs that relied on models and grand sets—movies like the original Blade Runner and the early Alien films and the original Star Wars trilogy. I simply loved this aspect of the movie. It feels like classic sci-fi to me. Certainly there’s CGI all over Dune, but there’s also a real solidity to everything that I don’t find in heavily green-screened productions. The production design as a whole I found to be gorgeous. The sets for the palace in Arrakeen, with their massive stone interior spaces and shadowed spaces felt pitch perfect to me.
Second, his use of alien languages and subtitles. I once called one of Villeneuve’s previous sci-fi movies, Arrival, “linguist porn” for its extended use of an alien language’s linguistics as a central plot point. Dune has some similar characteristics. Multiple languages—both verbal and non verbal—are present in the film, and subtitles are used frequently (but judiciously) to allow the alienness of these forms of communication to persist without disrupting the audience’s ability to understand what’s going on. This approach goes a long way to making the sci-fi universe feel authentic. George Lucas’s failure to take this approach was one of the things that stuck out to me most when I first saw Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. “Why do these trade delegates (or Watto or Jar-Jar) speak English with these stupid accents? Why don’t they use alien languages and subtitles like they did with Greedo?” The fact that the languages you do hear in Dune are so often impressive sounding and ominous makes things even better.
Finally, I have to mention the score. Hans Zimmer has been one of Hollywood’s most famous composers for decades, and his work on Dune is excellent. It doesn’t have any of the memorable melodies of John William’s Star Wars score, and for that reason it will likely never be remembered on its own the way the Star Wars soundtrack is, but I found the heavy electronic blend of percussive power, dissonance, and simmering tension to be an excellent backdrop for this movie.
If there’s one area Dune may struggle, it’s in making narrative sense of Paul’s frequent dreams and future visions. Without the aid of narration to explain what the visions mean, it’s left to the audience to decipher their import (both in terms of their meaning and in terms of what’s happening to Paul as his powers grow) from visual clues. These clues were well-presented in my view, but then, I’ve read the book. The real test will be in the second half of the story (to be featured in Dune: Part Two) when Paul’s prescient powers really come into play.
An additional challenge was sound balance. On multiple occasions I had trouble understanding what characters were saying because they were speaking too softly compared to everything else. This was particularly pronounced when I saw it the second time in IMAX. IMAX sound is powerful; maybe too powerful at times. Warner Brothers has officially greenlit the sequel in recent days in light of this movie’s box office success. ($40 million opening weekend in the US, with more than $200 million globally. These are high numbers for these pandemic days and do not count HBO Max revenue.) Dune: Part Two is currently slated for release two years from now in October 2023.
In the meantime, you should go see this one, in the theater, and soon. It’s one for the ages.