In his 1965 sci-fi novel Dune, Frank Herbert presented a strange world thousands of years in the future. Having long ago rid itself of thinking machines, humanity has reverted to feudalism and strict social controls. Rival noble houses rule the known universe on behalf of an emperor. Mental conditioning and mind expansion have replaced advanced technology. Soldiers are trained to be fighting machines while human computers called Mentats act as court advisors. Behind the scenes are the Bene Gesserit; to all appearances a religious order, they are in fact a cynical shadow power, manipulating aristocratic bloodlines and engineering myths and religions on primitive planets for their own ends.
Without artificial intelligence, the business of navigating space at faster-than-light speed has come to depend on a mind-altering drug called spice, which can only be harvested on the planet Arrakis, colloquially the Dune of the title, an inhospitable desert world with giant sandworms and an unfriendly local population known as the Fremen, whose lifelong exposure to spice has given them characteristic glowing blue eyes.
In essence, the questions Herbert was posing were not unlike those raised earlier by the mathematician and cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener. In his popular books (including the influential The Human Use Of Human Beings), Wiener asked what kind of society we might be building as we came to rely more and more on computers and automation. If we imagined our technologies as a human underclass, we might see that it wasn’t advancing us toward a less stratified future. A related concern was whether we were not only ruining our planet in pursuit of natural resources but becoming addicted to them.
But there were also questions that were Herbert’s own, about the future of religion and the use of belief as a form of control. These ideas (which Herbert would continue exploring over a series of books) distinguish Dune as a work of science fiction rather than, say, a space fantasy. Yet they are the hardest aspect of the novel to bring to the screen. What Denis Villeneuve’s sleek new adaptation gets right, immediately, is the galactic, millennia-old scale: gigantic architecture, humongous spacecraft, vast landscapes, big ugly sandworms. No other recent film has looked quite so huge.
It’s worth noting here that the actual onscreen title of Villeneuve’s film is Dune: Part One. The script (by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth) covers only the first half of Herbert’s novel, and the result ultimately feels like half of a movie. Fortunately, it’s an ambitious one, made with the same stylistic intelligence that Villeneuve brought to Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, his earlier forays into smart sci-fi. Having come a long way from his arthouse roots, he has emerged as one of our most reliable and talented directors of suspense and effects.
With floppy hair and an aloof air, Timothée Chalamet stars as Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), ruler of the wet, Hebridean planet of Caladan. Trained by his Bene Gesserit mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Paul possesses some budding superhuman abilities. He is also having apparently prophetic dreams about Arrakis and an unknown Fremen woman (Zendaya). The unseen emperor has recently given the Atreides clan control of the arid planet, which had been ruled for decades by the cruel, sadistic House Harkonnen, headed by the villainous and often literally slimy Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). Assisted by their loyal men-at-arms Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), the Duke and his family travel to Arrakis, aware that their new fiefdom might be a trap.
While most characters would be lucky to have one messianic destiny, Paul, as we soon learn, has two. He may be the Kwisatz Haderach, the being whose coming is the goal of the centuries-long Bene Gesserit breeding program. Or he may be the foreign savior of Fremen prophecy. Some Fremen treat him and his mother with religious awe; others, like the Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem), are skeptical and hostile.
This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of the plot, which is a tangle of dynastic politics, dual loyalties, court intrigues, assassination attempts, and mystical overtones. Villeneuve lays it out slowly; it takes some time before the characters even set foot on Arrakis. There are tests to pass, servants to meet, local leaders to win over. With the exception of travel between different star systems, nothing in the world of Dune happens instantly: spice is gathered by colossal lumbering harvesters; power is handed over in ceremonies; plans are laid far in advance; warfare in basically medieval. In an age of fast-moving effects creations, Villeneuve demonstrates that slowness can be suspenseful. It’s the dreaded approach of the all-devouring sandworm and the eerie menace of elite troops who float down silently to attack.
This is not the first attempt to translate Herbert’s novel to the screen. The midnight-movie auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky developed an unfilmed (and arguably unfilmable) adaptation in the 1970s that was later chronicled in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. In 1984 came the David Lynch version, which raced through a compressed version of Herbert’s plot in a bit over two hours, turning it into grotesque, baroque space opera; despite its shortcomings as coherent narrative, it remains a unique take on the blockbuster, and one of the era’s most memorable and varied showcases of production design. Much later came a 2000 TV miniseries, which is notable mostly for featuring some of the ugliest costumes to ever grace the small screen.
Despite his obvious talents, Villeneuve is not an esoteric, psychedelic voyager on the order of Jodorowsky, or an oneiric artist on the level of Lynch. If anything, his Dune might be accused of playing the story too straight, toning down its headier and stranger elements. In trying to distinguish itself from the numerous other visual interpretations (not just in film and TV, but in comics, book covers, computer games, etc.), the film opts for hard surfaces and geometries with more than a touch of monumental fascism. But there are still plenty of peculiar sights: The ‘thopter aircraft the characters use to get around resemble helicopter gunships mated with a dragonfly, and the mouth of the redesigned sandworm looks like a horrific toothy sphincter. (For the purists, it should be noted that it still has a triple jaw, though it’s now pharyngeal.)
Some narrative shortcuts are unavoidable; like Lynch’s version, for instance, the new Dune opens with extended expository narration. So is a sense of distance from the characters, given the fatalistic plotting of the source material, which also makes the scattered attempts at levity feel forced. But Villeneuve has a few tricks up his sleeve. The cast is uniformly strong, and it’s a credit to his direction that all of the performances—from Momoa’s boisterous Duncan to Charlotte Rampling’s imperious Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam to the “inhuman” Harkonnens—believably inhabit the same world. There’s also the effective use of flash-forwards; in providing cryptic glimpses of events beyond the film (to be presumably covered in Dune: Part Two), Paul’s visions reinforce the impression that all of this happening on a larger-than-human scale, with destinies to be fulfilled.
There is some craftsmanship here, too, that is hard not to admire—for instance, the way Villeneuve manages to balance a large, effects-heavy battle scene (which he directs with aplomb) with simultaneous intrigue inside the Atreides compound by making the interior sets big and cavernous. This gift for visual dimension is key, because what Dune offers, despite its often monochromatic futurism, is a kind of entertainment that was a far older Hollywood’s stock-in-trade: that of stars and titanic spectacle. In an odd way, the movie feels like an update of a Cinemascope epic, with impressive vistas, an overall sense of exotic grandeur, and a deliberate pace.
If there’s a big idea here, lurking like the mammoth sandworm, it’s about the symbolism of power. It may be signified by futuristic castles, traditions, family crests, loyal aides, or the Duke’s prized signet ring. But ultimately, power lies in the infinite, untamable, and largely empty desert; in order to master it, that’s where you have to go. However inconclusive as a story, the resulting film is a rarity among the overlong effects-heavy blockbusters of the last decade: One actually wishes it didn’t have to end so soon.