You’ll have heard by now that Dune — Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel — has reached a landmark $40.1 million opening weekend in the US (to say nothing of its £200 million mark globally.) Villeneuve’s best opening weekend, following his recent works Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, has emerged strong despite competition with its simultaneous release on HBO Max in the US. It’s also the biggest IMAX opening gross since the start of the pandemic at a not-insignificant $9 million.
Yet you won’t need these stats to persuade you that the star-studded spectacle, led by Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac and a whole host of others, is pretty much all anybody online has been talking about this past weekend. After numerous, excruciating delays, fans could finally see what they’ve been waiting for for so many months. I for one have been so excited for its release and with such a fondness for the source material, I feel that the latest adaptation is such a beautiful homage to the novel, in turn a pioneering work of the sci-fi genre. Countering pieces that have spoken of the film less than enthusiastically (I couldn’t leave our blasphemous review unremarked), I hope these thoughts will persuade you that Dune is a release absolutely deserving of your time and attention. This feature contains spoilers, so please read at your discretion.
A story of hugely ambitious magnitude, Dune follows the battles between the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen as they bargain for the most valuable substance in the universe, spice. From their homeworld of Caladan, the House of Atreides relocates to the desert world of Arrakis to harvest spice and control its production, building on generations of previous work to gain power, wealth, and to harness the power of the native Fremen people. But an ambush awaits and the house of Harkonnen assassinates Duke Leto Atreides, seizing back power of the occupied world. Only Leto’s son Paul, and his mother the Lady Jessica escape, delving into the hidden sietch world of the native Fremen for refuge.
Dune is at once so simple and so deeply complex: it’s a story of trust and loyalties and betrayal, of ecological and political warfare; it’s about the pragmatism of war versus the spirituality of certain beings and the belief in higher, more ancestral powers. It had a fashion of being read in postcolonialist terms, with lessons from colonizers and natives applied to more recent events, though this has slipped out of the vogue more recently. Very much a product of its time, the original novel also has patriarchal leanings and it’s a credit to the film that it manages to avoid these problematic areas and refashion the material into something palatable to 21st-century audiences, while also remaining faithful to the main events of the narrative.
Now, Frank Herbet’s 1965 novel is a feat. You can be forgiven for feeling daunted by its size, its attention to detail, its elevated style, and its reputation: all things that can easily put readers off. It’s often been described as unfilmable, so vast and ambitious is it in scope. Even the great David Lynch won’t talk about his colossal failure of an attempt to bring it to the screen in 1984. But if there’s an adaptation of the novel that feels worthy, it’s this one. If there’s one to capture the grandeur of the warring Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen, that captures the hostility of the desert world of Arrakis and the shrewdness of its natives, the Fremen, then it’s this film, and I applaud it.
You may counter-argue that a great adaptation will be accessible to anyone, without needing to read the source material. And you’d be right: a good film should be easy to explain to even the most casual viewers, and Villeneuve has even addressed this in a speech at the BFI: “The reputation of the book is that it’s dense and complex. I needed to make sure my mother will understand the movie without reading the book.” But does it mean a viewer should disparage the novel completely? Does it mean that we should forget about the rich history behind the film?
If you’ve not read the first volume of the Dune franchise — and I highly recommend that you do — then it will be difficult to formulate a well-rounded opinion of the film. It’s a complex work, and I think it’s absolutely crucial to gain some context and to make one’s mind up about the film as it unfolds.
Coming out of my first screening of Dune, it seems to me that there are so many small details that you’d have missed if you’d have not read the first volume of the novel. Paul Atreides becomes known to the native Fremen people as the Mahdi, the prophesied Saviour and it’s mentioned just once, towards the end of the film, by Chani. It’s a homophone to Muad’dib, the name given to the native desert mouse that inhabits Arrakis, a creature that knows the landscape intimately. By naming Paul after this creature, they characterise him as a native to their world and recognise him as the One from their ancient prophecy, he who will know their ways as if he were born into it. That’s such a precise detail that would have benefited viewers to have known beforehand and points to the disadvantage of going in without context.
There were other details, too: the Fremen housekeeper, Shadout Mapes, plays a small but vital role in the House of Atreides before it falls to the Harkonnens. The Reverend Mother in the order of the Bene Gesserit, and her testing of Paul using the Gom-Jabbar to test his resilience to pain. Her accusation that Lady Jessica, a witch and a Weirding Woman, would bear a son by Leto and, against convention, train him in the Way, giving him immeasurable power when he awoke to it: the Kwisatz-Haderach. These parts all worked on screen, of course, and the film does a grand job of explaining them: even using newsreels to explain some of the finer detail. But you’d see so much more of this if you are familiar with the source and I imagine they even may seem a little disjointed otherwise. That’s why I think it’s so important to familiarise yourself with the text and perhaps lends to the fact that existing fans have found the adaptation less troublesome than others would make it out to be.
By the end of my second screening, I realised too that there were so many cinematic qualities to the film. The quantity of spice — a hallucinogen, the most valuable substance in the universe due to its potency — has a gorgeous, glittering effect and it’s clear to see in almost every external shot if you look closely. You can see it informing every decision that Leto makes: driving him to visit the deserts of Arrakis on Imperium business to survey a carryall vessel refining and harvesting spice in sandworm territory. It’s there in Lady Jessica’s decisions to train her son in the Bene Gesserit Way; it’s in Paul’s dreams and his waking visions. It’s the very substance that compels every decision in the universe and has the quality of a living organism, so seductive is it to our characters. And these are just a few of the myriad examples of elements that jump out. I reiterate that you really have to spend your time thinking about this film.
You may look to Blade Runner 2049, and the equally worthy Arrival, as examples of Villeneuve’s style, an established auteur with great cinematic presence. I certainly felt as though his previous body of work has built up to an exquisite centrepiece in Dune, a film where, visually, his ambitions seem limitless. Accompanied by a haunting score by Hans Zimmer, filled with droning dirges and dramatic laments, the burnt, ombre landscapes in Dune are breathtaking: if you’d ever dreamt up a sci-fi film, this would be what you’d have seen. It quite literally took my breath away. The characters may have been referred to as Outworlders, but the most otherworldly thing about this production was the feeling that you had actually visited another planet. I thought it was just sublime.
And the central, most discussed part of Dune — its sandworms, the Makers, the Shai-Hulud- these have been notoriously difficult to capture on film. The scale, the fear they incite into the hearts of the characters and viewers, just can’t be exaggerated. If we’re taking this narrative seriously, as we should, then these creatures are at the centre of it all, and even young Paul and his mother narrowly miss a swift death by their colossal sweep. The mother and son marvel, as they approach Fremen territory, the mastery of these beings and that some natives can even tackle and ride the beasts, up to 400 feet in length. Although blind and directed by sound only, you get the feeling that these creatures are staring into the character’s very souls.
Why should we be so invested in this? Because Villeneuve has tackled an almost impossible task: he’s made these creatures comprehensible enough so that we can grasp their enormity, and feel as though we should be in awe of them. As the biologist and Fremen native Dr. Liet Kynes intones a prayer and a blessing to the Maker once it swallows down a vast expanse of a spice harvesting site, we believe that this is no visual effects gimmick, no shoddy piece of craftsmanship to be dismissed, but it’s as if these creatures are living and breathing and determine everything, so they are to be respected. Is it any wonder their director has described them as godlike? It’s a huge achievement to bring this to film, and I don’t care if it looks dated in ten years’ time: right now, in this moment, this feels like cinema as it should be experienced.
To pivot away and talk about the exhibition: if you really want to experience this film and its minutiae properly, see it on the big screen. You can watch it on HBO Max, but you’ll only lose the stunning visual effects and surround sound. You’ll miss all the small details because it’s far too easy to be distracted watching at home, and with a runtime of 155 minutes I can guarantee you’ll find it difficult to engage for that long without seeing it exclusively in a cinema. That all-encompassing world just has to be appreciated in the right environment.
The streaming model works well alongside theatrical releases for the vast majority of films, and there are arguments for streaming including accessibility and safety from covid, which I fully endorse and understand. But if you have the means to do so, this is a release that just has to be seen at scale. Watch it via streaming and you’ll only be doing the film, and yourself, a disservice. You run the risk of grossly underappreciating all the work that has gone into it. Please, if you’re going to watch it, watch it the way it was intended.
Do I agree that the film reached an unsatisfying conclusion? Certainly, if you take it as a standalone film. Yet knowing that there is almost double the material to follow in a sequel (just confirmed by WarnerMedia), it makes the cliffhanger that much more compelling. Certainly we’d want to see more of the interaction between Zendaya’s Chani and Chalamet’s Paul: we’d want to know about his visions, about the future of the Atreides house, we’d want to know about the fate of the Harkonnens and Paul’s mastery of his own power. But leaving us all this just keeps us hungry for more.
I’d so much rather we had a story that entices us with a sequel than one that tries to cram too much into a single instalment with little world- or -character building and with too little explanation. This is a film deserving time and patience, in contrast to many of the too-hastily exhibited pictures that can be so forgettable. This is just a foundation, setting up for a sequel where all the threads of the narrative wind together and forge an epic landscape, a glorious and holy war in the name of Atreides. And there’s so much room for the story to grow: while it’s likely any sequel will follow on from the events of the first volume, you have Dune Messiah and half a dozen sequels and additional published works to build on. To quote Chani: this is only the beginning!
While we have limited time and space to discuss every detail in Dune — to do so would take days, weeks, months — I’ve hoped to persuade you that Villeneuve’s film is a truly laudable adaptation. Building on his previous work, he has only surpassed himself, bringing a whole universe convincingly to life and fully immersing viewers in the right conditions. I can respect that the story, the genre, and so many other things won’t be to everyone’s taste, and we’re already getting a whole crop of reviews on the back of this release. I have to say, though, that for those who enjoy Frank Herbert’s world-building, you can hold this film in high esteem. Star power has played something of a part in it, but I have to say that the real draw is the absolute thrill of the spectacle.