Timing has a funny way of working. Even though Frank Herbert’s “Dune” is regarded as one of the most influential works of sci-fi ever produced, “spice” never seemed to stick with the masses as it should have.
Since the novel was published in 1965, the only thing prior “Dune” adaptations had shown was that being the first to things, interstellar travel, the evil empire or the hero’s journey, didn’t mean much when it came to actually winning over audiences on the big screen.
By the time David Lynch’s same-titled movie debuted in 1984, it had the unfortunate task of following “Return of the Jedi,” which had effectively seen the “Star Wars” franchise take over the popular space market. Lynch’s “Dune” ended up being widely panned by critics as campy and incomprehensible and its failures resulted in Herbert’s creations being shelved, until now.
At first glance, the landscape today looks even more precarious for an attempted comeback. Everywhere, studios are flocking to reproduce existing IP with the thinking that audiences are more likely to pay for what they’re familiar with rather than learn something new.
While a cynic could view this trend as a death sentence for originality, it’s also prepared this generation for the stunning masterpiece that is Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” which was released in theaters and HBO Max on Oct. 22.
The latest adaptation, which comes nearly 40 years after its predecessor, enjoys the rare alchemy of an auteur in their prime, blockbuster scale and cultural relevance all coalescing together to make what is the best science fiction film in a decade.
At its helm is the perfect steward. Villenueve’s body of work had proven he could wow moviegoers while simultaneously raising the stakes each year with projects like “Prisoners” (2013), “Sicario” (2015), “Arrival” (2016) and “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), all culminating in the latest “Dune,” which carries with it a sense of prestige that differentiates it from a crowded marketplace.
For movie fans, the biggest question leading up to its release wasn’t whether or not audiences would pay for or comprehend the new mythology, rather it was what Villenueve had up his sleeve this time.
If one was expecting laser beams or aliens, they will need to recalibrate expectations. At its heart, this film is, first and foremost, a Shakespearian tragedy. In that vein, Villenueve’s depiction of Herbert’s worlds evokes a sense of ancient history that is both familiarly grand and elegant, despite its events taking place in the distant future.
In this time period, space is ruled by noble families, or Houses as they are called in the canon, that maintain a fragile order because of their competing ambitions. As its creator intended, “Dune” purposely plays down the technological advances of the future in favor of questioning colonialism and the politics of humanity, which evolve over time but also regress.
In a way, “Dune” is returning to the stage at the perfect time where audiences are not only trained to comprehend this kind of scale, but they are likely asking the same broader questions the movie poses.
For example, the movie opens with the line, “who will our next oppressors be?” And the various Houses spend the duration of the run time openly ruminating about entitlement while they jostle over natural resources and compare fortunes.
On the viewing side, newcomers to the story will find that the world building in “Dune” is really no different to the multiple kingdoms, timelines and multiverses that modern moviegoers have already been asked to navigate. If anything, the assembling of the chess board will feel gratifying because it is familiar, a la “Game of Thrones” or “Lord of The Rings.”
Villenueve’s controversial decision to split Herbert’s novel into two separate movies also proved to be shrewd. “Part One,” as this film is dubbed, focuses solely on the journey and downfall of House Atreides, who take over as the new fief rulers of the desert planet Arrakis, which is the only place where “spice,” explained to us as the most valuable substance in the universe, can be found.
When they arrive, they find that the walls are closing in on them. It turns out that their predecessors, who amassed “more wealth than the emperor” during their rule of the spice trade, are unsurprisingly not keen to hand that position over. Moreover, the main protagonist Paul, the heir to House Atreides, starts to grapple with his family’s connection to the colonized planet.
Had this tension been only one half of a larger movie, it probably would have been too much to digest as Lynch’s was. Instead, Villenueve threads a delicate needle of introducing us to a massive world while still making it so that his mother, who had never heard of “Dune,” could also understand.
It also helps that the cast is loaded with stars that grab and hold one’s attention as they’re ushered from one planet and subplot to another. Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Mamoa and Zendaya are a few of many recognizable names, and Oscar Isaac’s performance in one half of this movie outshines all of his appearances in “Star Wars” combined.
Finally, the set pieces and locations in this movie are worth the price of admission alone. In a time in which blockbusters can be made on a studio lot, “Dune” spares no expense and ambition. It is reported that only two scenes in the entire movie were shot in front of a green screen, with the rest being filmed on location with massive sets built in Jordan, Abu Dhabi, Budapest and Norway.
The movie looks and feels real. Regardless of its outside baggage, the questions it poses are relevant, and the creative liberties, like casting people of color, that Villenueve took make it feel more timely. It is a movie that happens to take place in the future, but it is very much about today. “Dune” is a can’t miss.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars