Please Note: review has SPOILERS if you somehow don’t already know the story.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is an epic work of cinema that avoids the mistakes of its predecessors by letting the story guide the film without sacrificing its eerie, desolate, and harsh temperament.
Similar in pacing to the Lord of the Rings films, Dune is a slow burn filled with intense intrigue and complex themes. Set in the year 10191, it takes place in a universe where competing feudal houses vie for power. The most prominent of these are the fascist House Harkonnen and the stoic House Atreides, the latter ruled by the ambitious, but pragmatic Duke Leto.
As the film opens, political control of the desert planet Arrakis (aka the Dune of the title) is being handed over to House Atreides for safekeeping. Coveted for its production of Spice Melange, a substance that can extend life, and power ships for interstellar travel, Dune is an epicenter for political and commercial power.
Despite the riches on its surface, Arrakis is no paradise. Life there is hard and the indigenous natives, The Freman (who see spice as sacred), don’t want outside stewardship of their planet. Seeking good relations with the Fremen, Leto dispatches Duncan Idaho to discover all he can about them before he meets them in person. Leto also relies on counsel from his military adviser Gurney Halleck, a tested soldier who is suspicious of the emperor’s intentions in giving Arrakis to the Atreides.
Despite his reservations, Leto brings his family with him to Arrakis, including his son Paul, who is being prepared to take over the throne. Also on the journey is Paul’s mother Jessica, who is a member of the Bene Gesserit, whose powers, including visions and mind control, are manifesting themselves in Paul, who carries the weight of his destiny with him.
After arriving on Dune and meeting with The Fremen, Leto and his confidants become even more certain that an attack is coming. Meanwhile, Baron Harkonnen, furious at losing access to the spice trade, sets a murderous scheme in motion to vanquish his adversaries.
With his future drastically altered, Paul (who quickly realizes his mind-control powers are finally manifesting) flees into the desert with his mother, where he hopes that the Fremen can hide him.
From here the political intrigue, world-building, and character development come together in an action-filled crescendo filled with betrayal, rigorous fighting, and epic clashes on the sandy planet before grinding to a halt. Literally.
Dune is gorgeously shot; combining sight, sound, and diplomatic scheming that is (mostly) faithful to the original work. It also boasts a ludicrously good cast who could easily upstage each other but don’t.
Rebecca Ferguson turns in a breakout performance as Lady Jessica. Stealing the film, she grabs the reins early on and never relents. Working on an ambitious project in an expansive universe, Timothée Chalamet seems right at home, giving Paul confidence and vulnerability. Oscar Issac’s layered Duke Leto Atreides is dynamic without being heavy-handed, and Stellan Skarsgård is delightfully creepy as the Baron.
Dave Bautista’s blood and thunder Beast Rabban is a nice contrast to Jason Momoa’s Duncan. Although each is known for action roles, here they cast away the pure testosterone and create layered characters with emotional depth, who also just happen to kick lots of ass.
Spanning half of Frank Herbert’s book in just over two and a half hours, Villeneuve, along with fellow scribes Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, have preserved the spirit of the book. As a result, those familiar with the novel will appreciate the achingly slow world-building, imagery, and character development, while folks looking for a shoot ‘em up space saga will be disappointed.
Beneath the complex social themes, percolating tension, and naked ambition, Dune is everything you want it to be. Besides looking incredible, it lives and breathes with a slow starkness that simultaneously offers moments of quiet intimacy and raging fury.