Dune review: putting an epic franchise ahead of its epic story
The most important thing to know about the movie called Dune is that it’s not actually “Dune.” As the title card relates from the first seconds of the movie, the film you’re watching (which debuts on HBO Max on October 21st at 6PM ET and in theaters on October 22nd) isn’t Dune, but rather Dune: Part One. It’s a movie that aspires from the start to be more than a single film. It’s the start of a capital F-Franchise.
To be clear, the movie that director Denis Villeneuve has here is great. Dune actually succeeds at translating the oftentimes impenetrable novel into an enjoyable and approachable sci-fi epic at a scale far beyond the Star Wars and Star Treks of yore. The problem is that it feels more like half of an epic.
Dune (the movie) is based on Dune, the classic sci-fi novel from author Frank Herbert. At its core, Dune is the story of Paul Atreides, the son and heir to House Atreides, which is engaged in a complex political power struggle with another house, the villainous Harkonnens. Specifically, everyone is fighting over control of the desert planet Arrakis — the titular “dune” — and the source of the incredibly valuable resource spice, which enables all galactic commerce and travel. Along the way, Paul also stumbles into a greater destiny that could change the face of the galaxy.
A key part of its success is lead actor Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, who has to walk the line between coming across as an actual human being with feelings and emotions and the otherworldly, wise-beyond-his-years messiah that Paul is destined to become. Chalamet’s Paul doesn’t want to be the next Duke of House Atreides; he wants to hang out with Jason Momoa’s bro-y Duncan Idaho, skip his classes because he’s not in the mood, and complain about having to attend family functions. It helps to humanize Paul, who otherwise comes across as a know-it-all who gets to be the best at all of Dune’s various quasi-magic techniques.
The rest of the incredibly star-filled cast is great, too, although many A-list actors feel underused in a way that practically screams “they’ll be back in the sequels!” Oscar Isaac gets the most screentime of the relatively minor characters and puts it to good use as the noble, patrician Duke Leto. Isaac exudes a sense of righteous honor, and it’s easy to see both why his men would follow him to a forsaken desert world and why he falls so thoroughly into the political traps.
Momoa brings the most levity to the occasionally ponderous film, sauntering from scene to scene with smiles and swagger. But other characters — like Javier Bardem’s Freman leader, Josh Brolin’s surly weapons master, or Dave Bautista’s villainous Rabban — feel more like table setting for the sequel.
Unfortunately, Dune — at least for this first half — gives less attention to its female leads. Zendaya’s Chani, destined to be Paul’s love interest and partner in the latter half of Herbert’s novel, is relegated to silent, softly lit perfume commercial-style visions for the vast majority of the film. Rebecca Ferguson gets a little more to do as the Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, but she spends a lot more time in the film worrying over her son and partner than she does as a member of the politically powerful Bene Gesserit sisterhood.
Women hold positions of power in Dune’s world, but in Dune the film, they’re largely second to the male leads. That will presumably change if (or when) Villeneuve gets to adapt the second half of the book, which sees Jessica and Chani take larger roles in the story during Paul’s time among the Freman, but right now, it’s more setup than payoff.
The main exception is Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet-Kynes, a gender-swapped version of the book character who is both an Imperial liaison caught between her love of Arrakis and the Freman and her allegiance to the Emperor, who seeks to embroil Kynes in his plots.
The real star of Dune, though, is the setting and worldbuilding. All of Villeneuve’s modes from previous films like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are turned up to 11 here: the ships are starker and more abstract, the buildings more towering and brutalist, the landscapes are more sweeping and desolate, the bass-heavy score from Hans Zimmer even more thunderous. I’m still not sure I buy the argument that Dune (or any film, really) demands to be seen in a proper theater, but you’ll definitely want to make sure you’ve got a good set of speakers handy for however you do watch it.
Dune is a film designed to be seen as epic, with a scope and scale that extends from everything from Paul’s weighty destiny to the sheer size of the iconic sandworms. And it works: when everything is firing on all cylinders, Dune overwhelms with visual, thematic, and sonic heft without losing sight of the personal dramas that power those lofty ambitions.
Fortunately, Villeneuve wisely skips over a lot of Herbert’s info-dumps and makes some of the more subtle political machinations a little clearer in an effort to streamline and simplify the story. No one in the film says the word “mentat” or explains the concept of the living calculators, for example, but no one really needs to. The result is a film that’s relatively approachable for a Dune adaptation, even for newcomers to the story.
But the biggest problem with Dune is that it ends just as the movie is getting started, cutting off not with a big, cathartic ending but somewhere in the middle of the second act of the story. Dune leaves you wanting more, but in the sense that you didn’t actually get everything you were promised.
Dune does try to have its cake and eat it, too, in some respects, with Paul’s visions of possible futures filling in for epic Freman battles and Dune’s galactic stakes. It even tosses a quick shot of someone finally riding a sandworm in the final moments, as if to remind viewers (and studio executives) that the real fun is coming in the still unconfirmed sequel.
If there is a Dune: Part Two somewhere down the line, there’s going to be the possibility of an hours-long marathon of the two parts of the movie for an experience that rivals the original tome. But for now, Dune’s methodological worldbuilding and table setting is in the same place the movie leaves Paul: primed for greatness, but with a lot of unrealized potential that has yet to be unlocked.