“I just hope we’re back in theaters for Dune,” I said last summer as I listened to the superb audiobook edition of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 science fiction novel. And so we were: I saw Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation in a full theater of fans who were absolutely rapt. Only the occasional nervous laugh broke the silence as the film played and we enjoyed that rarest of cinematic experiences, seeing a movie that’s everything you hope and more.
Not that Dune has been unaffected by the pandemic. Its release date was pushed back nearly a year, and it now arrives in theaters that are fully, if uneasily, open. It’s arriving simultaneously on HBO Max, one of the Warner Bros. films moving directly to that platform without filmmakers’ permission. Villeneuve was among those who blasted the decision, declaring that parent corporation AT&T “has has hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history. There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here.”
AT&T refused to reverse its decision. Audiences, however, have shown their solidarity by continuing to support theatrical releases even when they’re available simultaneously on streaming; if there’s a film this year to mask up and hit the theater for, it’s Dune. It’s not only “the best movie I’ve ever made,” as Villeneuve accurately wrote, it’s a stunning epic that not only lives up to its storied source material, it does justice to the tradition of great desert movies — from Lawrence of Arabia to Star Wars.
Indeed, Herbert’s theme of seeking balance with nature, rather than dominance over it, resonates all the more strongly in the 21st century. Villeneuve doesn’t hit it too hard, because he doesn’t have to. It’s right there in the fascinating story he efficiently (that’s a relative term; at 155 minutes, Dune covers only the first half of the novel) conveys to the the screen with cowriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth.
Dune is a movie like we’ve never seen before. Villeneuve has completely realized an unapologetically fantastic universe; it’s as if we’re watching the cover of a ’70s science fiction novel come to life, but with tactile presence and the thundering power of a soundscape anchored by Hans Zimmer doing his absolute best Hans Zimmer. It’s an overwhelming experience, all the more so because Villeneuve exercises a sure sense of patience and timing. The epic unfurls symphonically, neither rushed nor slacking.
If the screenplay occasionally lifts into the ponderous, how can we complain? This is as high as high fantasy gets: a universe where the spice mined from the sands of Arrakis fuels interstellar travel for an empire of family-led houses that jockey for supremacy — with Arrakis, of course, being the ultimate prize. As Dune opens, House Atreides seems ascendant, with Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, somewhat more ingratiating than Herbert’s proud patriarch) proudly leading his legions to the desert planet the (unseen) Emperor has assigned his family to run.
A gift is not always a gift, as Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) hints darkly, harboring plans to retake Arrakis with a vengeance. His corpulent character is one of the holdovers from the era when lean heroes’ physical discipline was taken as evidence of their moral fortitude, while villains let themselves go. The pointedly slight frame of hero Paul Atreides gives this film no points for body positivity, but Timothée Chalamet is perfectly cast for a character who will take his Fremen sobriquet from a tiny mouse that scampers across the sand.
The Fremen are the indigenous people of Arrakis, persecuted by House Harkonnen. The whiff of white-savior around Paul’s elevation is also uncomfortable, though the film elevates a much more diverse cast of characters than did David Lynch in his pulpier 1984 take on this material. Villeneuve’s Fremen include Zendaya as the dryly stunning Chani; and Stilgar, a leader whose haunted reserve looms in the transfixing person of Javier Bardem.
Dune sustains an intricate but legible plot driven by fantastic inventions that Villeneuve milks for visual spectacle while never losing sight of their service to the story. The warriors’ personal shields flash blue when they repel fast strikes, red when they admit a slow blade or projectile; when armies clash, the shields strobe like silent lightning. The ornithopters that provide transport across Arrakis are not only fascinating to watch, their capabilities to glide and dive make for some of the most original scenes of aerial combat ever seen on screen.
And then there are the worms. Among the most iconic creatures in science fiction history, the giant worms that burrow through the sand — creating the precious spice even as they threaten its harvesters — are handled here with genuine wonder, and a promise of more wonders to come. Dune is an engrossing epic, truly a must-see theatrical experience.