The prospect of adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune has been a cinematic conundrum since the early 1970s. The rights were first optioned by prolific producer Arthur P. Jacobs in 1971, with director David Lean of Lawrence of Arabia (Herbert’s inspiration in early drafts) attached. Jacobs died in 1973, and the rights reverted a year later. At that time, renowned Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky began developing his own version, which eventually imploded due to a calculated 10-14 hour runtime which became a budgetary impossibility for studios to undertake. Two years later, Ridley Scott was tasked with adapting the book for the screen, a project that dissolved after his decision to pursue Blade Runner instead. Finally, 1984 saw the release of David Lynch’s Dune, which performed so poorly on commercial and critical scales that the director was all but forced to disown the title. Upon the film’s disappointing reception, a valid question arose: If some of the most accomplished and boundary-pushing contemporary directors couldn’t prevail at adapting Dune, who possibly could?
Nearly 35 years after Lynch’s bomb, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has seemed to settle the debate. Both technologically innovative and narratively faithful to the original text, Villeneuve’s Dune is bolstered by its seamless special effects and starpower above all else. Considering the director’s previous work in these arenas—namely Enemy, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049—he should be totally adept for the challenge. Yet there exists a nagging query that begs to be quelled: How much of this film is predicated on the sheer fact that cinematic advancements have finally rendered Dune an attainable possibility? Though it remains true to the first part of the text’s unhurried pace and detailed world building, Villeneuve’s adaptation feels overlong and void of subtext.
In the far-flung future, the human race populates planets of varying ecological environments, none more valuable than Arrakis, a largely inhospitable world that is nonetheless incredibly lucrative for the natural production of melange—a youth-extending, psychoactive, space-navigating substance known as “spice.” Known for its desolate sand-submerged terrain, the planet is colloquially dubbed “Dune.” After experiencing a brutal reign of subjugation by the House Harkonnen, Arrakis’ native population, the Fremen, are suspicious when their colonizers suddenly retreat. Shortly after, Duke Leto of House Atreides (Oscar Isaac) on the planet of Caladan is called upon by the intergalactic Emperor to take control of Arrakis in the Harkonnens’ place. Duke Leto’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) has recently been dreaming of Arrakis and the Fremen, an occurrence that instills an immediate fascination and respect for these people and their planet. Though there is the lingering suspicion that saddling the House of Atreides with the wealth inherent to Arrakis’ spice production will make them a target, Duke Leto accepts the Emperor’s order. Paul eagerly awaits his arrival on the planet, particularly because his dreams involve visions of a beautiful Fremen woman named Chani (Zendaya). These dreams also hold the key to Paul’s burgeoning mystical powers—imparted onto him by his mage mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, 12 years Chalamet’s senior)—which he must learn to harness in the wake of wanton destruction.
It’s important to note that the film only adapts the first part of Herbert’s novel, which is notoriously kind of a slog. Much of the plot is focused on worldbuilding and creating an incremental immersion into the immaterial political hierarchies that shape this unknown yet familiar world. Admittedly, Villeneuve evokes and embraces this unhurriedness—a choice that just might predicate Dune’s future fortune. Jodorowsky’s bloated unrealized epic attempted to adapt the entire 412-page text, as did Lynch’s quasi-incomprehensible feature. By limiting the scope to Part I, Villeneuve’s Dune maintains a consistent tone and sense of time—though it invariably drags over the course of two and a half hours. However, the meandering pace may perfectly suit fans of the original novel, which captures a certain pensive density indicative of the text.
Despite the instances of an impenetrable atmosphere, Villeneuve and co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth adeptly outline the intricacies of the work they’re referencing, rendering a convoluted plot into a trajectory that’s relatively easy to follow. Technological gadgets, political orders and intergalactic lore are plainly explained, at times through simple context, allowing even unfamiliar viewers to feel involved and invested. Scenes present in both renditions—such as Paul’s “gom jabbar” torture or Duke Leto’s poisoned tooth—are plainly framed and delineated within the narrative structure in a way that Lynch’s version, in particular, never quite accomplished. There is a superimposed simplicity that serves to elucidate the esoteric inner mechanisms of Dune, which unintentionally carries a certain sense of emptiness along with it. Even the most exciting sequences of the film—fiery battle scenes, gargantuan sandworm stand-offs and traitorous revelations—are slick optic veneers, uninterested in communicating corresponding emotions. Chalamet is as flat as the interchangeable grayscale and sepia tones that serve as backdrops; Isaac, at the very least, incorporates a subtle sentimental streak throughout his performance, such as the self-assured, dad-like goofiness of his obsession with harvesting Arrakis’ “desert power.”
To be fair, there is a plain reason as to why Villeneuve opts for a subdued and sedated Dune. With so many failed attempts at adapting Herbert’s novel preceding it, how could the project ever fully embrace auteur-driven artistic risk? Unfortunately, this isn’t a strong enough justification. It translates as Villeneuve playing it safe, expending all of his energy on ensuring that his remake can’t possibly flop. Though Dune is faithful and fantastical in vision, its existence is merely proof that the enduringly popular novel can, in fact, be adapted into a box office hit. Perhaps with the inevitable second installment of the Dune series, details lingered upon in Part I will click into place. However, as it currently stands, Dune feels relatively unfulfilled. For all of the film’s computer-generated aesthetic allure, it succumbs to bouts of profound protractedness.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Jason Momoa
Release Date: October 22, 2021 (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan