Director Denis Villeneuve first came to my attention when I saw his outstanding science fiction film Arrival (2016), a visually stunning and philosophically profound story about mankind’s first contact with extraterrestrials. Villeneuve then went on to acclaim with another sci-fi hit, Blade Runner 2049 (2017). When it was announced that he would be helming a new movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 epic science fiction novel Dune, I knew immediately that the project was in capable hands. An attempt to bring Herbert’s classic to the big screen by David Lynch in 1984 was less than successful and fans of the book have been awaiting a worthy adaptation ever since.
I first read Dune when I was in college and was immediately captivated, particularly by its sprawling cast of complex and nuanced characters. As I watched the film, I tried to put myself in the mindset of someone unfamiliar with the novel’s incredibly detailed fictional universe and somewhat complicated plot. The film does a serviceable job of weaving in exposition through character dialogue and visual cues. In a refreshing departure from some other contemporary blockbusters, Dune respects the intelligence of the audience. However, certain crucial aspects of backstory (such as the lack of advanced computers or AI in a sci-fi setting) were left unexplained and this may confuse those uninitiated into Dune lore.
Where the script succeeds marvelously is in the delicate balancing act of remaining faithful to the source material without being slavishly shackled to it. For example, the movie does a better job than the book at introducing the main characters. Additionally, some of the novel’s overly labyrinthine political machinations have been simplified without sacrificing the integrity of the core story.
Like the novel, the film contains interesting philosophical themes and religious imagery. Frank Herbert was a lapsed Catholic and the religious landscape of the “Duniverse” reflects the of influences of a variety of other faith traditions, notably Islam and Buddhism. A quasi-religious sect of women mystics, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood manipulate politics and society from the shadows, utilizing eugenics to produce a superman they refer to as the Kwisatz Haderach.
The story’s protagonist, the young noble Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet), is the product of this breeding program. His father, the Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has been granted fiefdom over the desert planet Arrakis, the only known source in the universe of a hallucinogenic spice that is also essential for interstellar travel. But the rival house Harkonnen seeks to wipe out the Atreides bloodline by any means necessary. Haunted by visions of a possible future in which he launches a devastating holy war across the galaxy, Paul must escape deadly assassins and alongside his Bene Gesserit mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), must traverse the unforgiving terrain of Arrakis with its monstrous sandworms and indigenous warriors, the Fremen.
One crucial point that viewers should be made aware of (but that the trailers haven’t made clear) is that Dune is only Part One of a two-part story. The film ends at an appropriate stopping point in the narrative, yet it still feels very incomplete. Luckily, Part Two has already been greenlit, so moviegoers won’t have to worry about being left with an unresolved cliffhanger.
Although the story’s impact on the last six decades of science fiction will be clear to anyone paying close attention, audiences expecting a fun sci-fi romp in the vein of Star Wars will be sorely disappointed. Aside from a handful of lighthearted moments, this film’s tone is as solemn and serious as a dirge. I actually don’t mean this as a criticism. Indeed, it appropriately reflects the source material. Still, I can see this being a strain on some viewers’ patience, especially since the runtime clocks in at over two-and-a-half hours.
Denis Villeneuve’s visual signature is all over this film. Although Dune was released simultaneously in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming platform, I would strongly recommend seeing this movie on the big screen if at all possible. The cinematography conveys an unnerving sense of sheer, overwhelming scale, complemented by the haunting and powerful score of composer Hans Zimmer. At times this movie practically assaults you with sound and unfortunately the dialogue can be occasionally drowned out by the overpowering soundtrack.
Aside from a few brief scenes of partial nudity there is little objectionable content in Dune. The film is suitable for adults and mature teenagers, though there are many sequences of peril and violence that would likely be too intense for younger or more sensitive viewers.
If you’re a longtime fan of the novel, I am happy to report that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is the big screen adaptation you’ve been waiting for. If you’re new to the franchise, the film is still a terrific theater experience and well worth the price of admission for the spectacle alone.
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