“Dune” movie review: the experience you’ve been waiting for

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Ben Saito Barwig

It has been a few hours since I saw “Dune” on the big screen, and yet it feels as though I still haven’t left its world. The smoldering heat of the desert. The shade of House Atreides’ towering pillars and hallways. The sacred palm trees standing alone in the courtyard. The planet’s beautiful sunset. All of the movie’s glory is a part of me now, ingrained in my everyday being, and I couldn’t be happier. Shot gorgeously for IMAX and accompanied by or, rather, on the shoulders of Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score, “Dune” is a cinematic experience like no other. I foresee that director Denis Villeneuve’s definitive film will stand equal among the finest of sci-fi epics as well as the pantheon of the greatest trilogy beginnings in cinema. 

Talking about the story is a difficult endeavor. While possessing similar characteristics to “Star Wars” (which was heavily inspired by the original “Dune” novel), its main plot is not nearly as streamlined. Paul Atreides, the main character portrayed excellently by Timothée Chalamet, is much more complicated than Luke Skywalker. Instead of galaxy hopping, “Dune” mainly focuses on one pivotal planet, Arrakis. This makes for a much more intrinsic look into science fiction, and one that carries much more thematic and political heft than George Lucas’ franchise. If I were to boil it down into a sentence, “Dune” follows the royal House Atreides and their heir to the throne, Paul, as they move their empire into the contentious and volatile desert planet of Arrakis, previously inhabited by the devious House Harkonnen. Out of this core springs a plethora of grandiose as well as humane ideas and themes that Frank Herbert, author of the original “Dune” novel, brought to life and that Denis Villeneuve extended.

The pure size of epic and accompanying lore is what I was most worried about going into the film. How would one manage to fit even just the first part of “Dune” into two and a half hours? A large part in the failure of the first attempt at adapting “Dune” back in 1984 was director David Lynch’s miss at capturing the size of “Dune” in the span of two hours. Those familiar with Lynch’s work know that he is not as suited for large-scale production as he is for a more humanist independent film. Luckily, Denis Villeneuve is. Being the director of both “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049,” two of the finest sci-fi movies of the 2010’s, he was a perfect fit for the challenge of “Dune.” Not only does he manage to capture the scale properly, but his clear passion for the story creates the characters that made “Dune” so remarkable. In such a massive landscape of geopolitical conflict and intergalactic war, Frank Herbert created interesting and grounded characters that drove the story forward. This Villeneuve understands well. Paul Atreides’ visions of an imperial future and his contentions with his mother’s ancestry are given the attention they deserve. Lady Jessica, an incredibly well-written character in the original novel, has great chemistry with Paul, and Rebecca Ferguson just knocks it out of the park portraying her. It’s not just the leads either, all of the characters are brought to life with such a fantastic cast. Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, and Oscar Isaac are the obvious highlights but the talent goes beyond the A-list stars. Sharon Duncan-Brewster does a fantastic job as Kynes, another pivotal character, and Stellan Skarsgard as the ominous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen captures the same slow and lumbering yet purely maniacal energy found in the book. 

Another large worry many, including myself, had was how the film would compare to the book. Now to clarify, I am not, by any means, a massive fan of the original novel nor do I have a special loyalty to it. I read it about a year ago and took a liking to the characters and world-building, but didn’t really gain much beyond that. My excitement for “Dune” came more from the director, cast, and trailers, so my criticisms aren’t from an overly-comparative perspective. That being said, I do wish there were a few more scenes taken from the novel. However, they weren’t vitally important, and I can understand why a studio executive obsessed with marketing the film to the general public would decide not to include them. After all, Villeneuve’s previous film, “Blade Runner 2049,” was intensely respectful of its predecessor in capturing the slow pace and little action, which resulted in a not-so-great box office run. Personally, I would have liked it if the executives had allowed Villeneuve to draw out the film a little bit longer in favor of including those scenes, but I will have to wait for an extended cut. Not a major grievance by any means though, just an admitted nitpick that might bug a hardcore fan.

So, the film did the near-impossible task of successfully bringing the most important parts of what made the novel special to the big screen, but what really makes “Dune” stand amongst “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” for me is what is added and enhanced. That being, depth, both in lore and meaning. Depth comes naturally with the nature of the story and setting. The physical depth of the sand dunes, constantly shifting and consuming their surroundings, hiding massive amounts of native history and rituals below. This depth as it relates to this great hope dug so deep into the culture of these native Fremen, and the same hope found deep in the blood and soul of Paul Atreides. The hope of the Kwisatz Haderach. The chosen one. A new beacon against their constant torment by the upper echelons of the Imperium, as the never-ending oppression of their planet and race, continues. A hope that will rise from its deep tomb under the sand and finally bring peace to Arrakis. One day those same roots buried next to this hope will not be ignited and burnt out, but watered and cultivated. One day, when the ocean of blood-soaked sand fades, and the hope comes to fruition, the dunes of Arrakis can support the Fremen rather than hide them. 

So there lie the Fremen, deep under the sand, their race slowly losing control. Above the dunes are House Atreides, and even higher up in space, the Imperium. This geopolitical structure serves as both a realistic depiction of what futuristic alien colonization would look like, but also an allegory for the power structure in our own world. An endless cycle of colonization, one that comes in many forms. The obsessive lust for power and ruling. The disregard of indigenous peoples. “Dune” is not science fiction for the sake of cool computers and zany technology, almost every idea presented is either a reflective metaphor or dipped in lore and alien culture. It is incredibly refreshing to see a blockbuster movie do what most blockbusters don’t in that it, well, cares about being the best it can be

In all my thinking about “Dune,” one aspect of the film shines through above all else. There will be more Dune. The film only covers around half of the book, which isn’t even the only book in the series. There will be more Dune coming, and it fills me with joy to think that we could see this level of polish in two or three more installments. “Dune” creates so much great cinema as its own entity, but it also serves as a perfect beginning to something larger. There are sprinkles of an even grander world here and there, little snippets of visions and unanswered questions that didn’t leave a feeling of incompletion, but simply the idea that there is so much more to be unlocked. “Dune” met my incredibly high expectations, and is one of the best cinematic and theatrical experiences of my life.