Following a series of pandemic-related delays, Dune is finally here, having premiered to a rapturous reception a few hours ago at the Venice Film Festival. The last time Denis Villeneuve adapted a famous sci-fi story, audiences didn’t show up. Thankfully, he hasn’t learned from his mistakes: It’s genuinely heartening to see the Quebecois-gone-Hollywood director follow Blade Runner 2049, which didn’t earn the box office it deserved, with another glorious science fiction epic worthy of its lauded source material.
His Dune covers only half of the events of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. But it preserves much of the palace intrigue of the book, set in a future feudal society spread across the cosmos. The film follows Paul Arteides (Timothée Chalamet), son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the religious sisterhood the Bene Gesserit. The Emperor gives stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis to Duke Leto, home to the colonized Fremen and the only place to mine Spice, the most valuable substance in the universe—a choice that enrages rival House Harkonnen. Perhaps one of the best choices Villeneuve has made is bisecting the story: Even at a colossal two hours and 35 minutes, Dune unfolds at a thrilling pace, with just enough room for effective world building and the young Paul’s coming of age, which Chalamet depicts as a seamless transition from sheltered boy to heroic leader.
Villeneuve’s vision benefits from special-effect capabilities not available to David Lynch in the 1980s or to the makers of the Y2K television miniseries. But the achievement isn’t strictly technological: The director develops a spectacular medieval-futurism aesthetic of towering stone structures and barren horizons, and uses natural landscapes to create a sense of sprawling depth. He often dwarfs his actors within the frame during the interpersonal scenes, keeping the camera distant to make them appear all the most disconnected from one another, lost and insignificant within this hostile new world.
It’s a cosmetic wonder. The costume design by Jacqueline West and Bob Ward is particularly fascinating, dressing the Fremen in the Dune universe’s water-recycling, so-called “stillsuits” and Lady Jessica in translucent silks and shimmering beads. Best of all is the grotesque design of the Harkonnen, led by the nauseatingly realized Baron Harkonnen (Stellen Skargârd), his twisted “mentat” Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian), and his sadistic nephew, Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista). Villeneuve presents them as sallow, hairless, bloated fascists, encased in layers of kinky black leather.
Most science fiction reflects the anxieties of the time in which it was written. That was certainly true of Herbert’s novel, penned as the first men were going to space, second-wave feminism was gaining traction, the Vietnam War raged on, and the world became increasingly reliant on Middle Eastern oil. While a very faithful adaptation, the new Dune plays to current anxieties, like our collective fear of climate change and dwindling resources. It’s interesting to see a vision of the future arguably less reliant on technology than the contemporary world, allowing for more visceral action set pieces than the destruction of Death Stars and the pursuit of Infinity Stones. Applying a modern lens, this Dune emphasizes that even the most benign forms of colonialism are inherently destructive, and allows the female characters far more complexity and independence than in previous incarnations.
One other stark contrast is how Dune approaches race. Whereas the prior film and television adaptations flooded the screen with whiteness, Villeneuve’s casting is more color blind. Characters that are racially ambiguous or coded as white in the books are now portrayed by actors of color, including Bautista, Zendaya, and Chang Chen. (Liet Kynes, played here by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, has been gender swapped, too.) Is there an irony in casting Guatemalan-American Oscar Isaac as the colonizer negotiating with an occupied native played by the Spanish Javier Bardem?
What is certain is that while this version corrects the complete white washing of earlier adaptations, there are some troublesome racial dynamics still at play. The Fremen are clearly influenced by Middle Eastern and North African culture (as they were in the text), but though they have more members of color than House Atriedes or Harkonnen, Villeneuve stops short of casting any MENA actors. The best faith interpretation of this erasure is that maybe Villeneuve was trying to make a distinction between MENA people and the Fremen, who are tragically heroic but ultimately zealots who end up following a false messiah on a jihad—a problematic portrayal straight out Edward Said’s Orientalism. Anyway, with far more Fremen and House Corrino characters in the second half of the novel, the absence of MENA actors could be rectified in part two.
That’s assuming, of course, that we get a part two, and get to see whether Paul’s prophecy of a “holy war spreading across the universe like an unquenchable fire” comes to pass. Villeneuve has been very clear that a conclusive installment would depend on ticket sales, which would have to impress in order to justify a sequel—an even dicier gamble in these uncertain times. Dune is engrossing and spectacular; it’s rare to see a blockbuster so grand, intelligent, and distinct, one that speaks to humanity’s past, present, and future. But by its very nature as half of a story, the film offers a slightly dissatisfying conclusion. So let’s hope that history doesn’t repeat itself at the box office.