DUNE (also known as DUNE: PART ONE) is directed by Denis Villeneuve. The film stars Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem. It’s based on the first half of Frank Herbert’s DUNE novel, and the first film in a planned trilogy from Villeneuve.
In the year 10191, there is unrest in the galaxy following House Harkonnen’s orders to vacate Arrakis, allowing House Atreides to take control and begin harvesting spice, an element that's only found on that world, used to bend space and to achieve higher levels of thought and enlightenment. A disgruntled and displaced Baron Harkonnen plots with the Emperor of the Universe to sabotage spice production on Arrakis by declaring war on House Atreides, thus removing the one clan who stands between them and galactic domination.
Writing a simple plot synopsis for DUNE is no easy task, because it’s not a small story. With many worlds, characters, clans, and strange technology and mysticism, it’s a huge tale and one director Villeneuve clearly didn’t believe could be told in one film (the prior 1984 film adaptation from director David Lynch, who has since disowned the movie, was about 20 minutes shorter than this film but adapted the overall whole story of the original book). Having seen this new take on the classic Frank Herbert story, I was in awe of the gorgeous visuals, impressive world building, an all-star cast, and some gripping scenes and moments. Unfortunately, the experience is derailed by its overlong running time (and this isn’t even the whole story), weak pacing, and much of the cast of characters being relegated to what amount to glorified cameos.
If I can give credit here for a few things, the casting is one of the first to call attention to. Just one look at that first paragraph of this review will tell you all you need to know as far as how much talent has been assembled here. Everyone does what they can with the part they’re given, shining when they get the chance. The true standout here is Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides, the son and heir to the Atreides clan, who brings a vulnerability and innocence to this character while being placed in tragic and gripping situations that truly test who he is. Seeing him tested in more ways than one is truly the greatest thing on display here, and he makes the film and the character his own. I haven’t read Frank Herbert’s source novel, but if he were alive today, I think he’d be proud of how Chalamet handles himself in this role.
World building and the production angle are nothing short of awe-inspiring. DUNE is a tale of many worlds, clans, and other interesting elements, and seeing everything on display here truly speaks for itself. When it’s on the big screen, regardless of how much or how little is going on, the jaw-dropping visuals make for something unique. Everything looks absolutely fantastic, from the deadly desert sands of Arrakis to the home of House Harkonnen. To say that these set designs and visuals are Oscar worthy is an understatement. The screening that I attended was in a Dolby Theater, with a massive screen and countless speakers, which further brought these worlds and atmospheres to life. And while the film will get a simultaneous American theatrical and HBO Max streaming release, this is a movie that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
I wish other elements of the movie fared as well. Perhaps the biggest weakness here is the pacing. DUNE clocks in at a whopping 155 minutes, and it’s far too late in the movie before anything of consequence happens. I appreciate world building, but for much of the movie, director Villeneuve seems more interested in showing off the visuals, which while admittedly spectacular, don’t always do much to advance the plot. It’s a shame how many characters/actors are sidelined. For example, Zendaya is barely in the movie at all despite being advertised pretty heavily as one of the picture’s key stars. Even the Harkonnens barely appear in the film, which makes them come off as lackluster adversaries who don’t quite get the development they deserve.
DUNE will probably fare better as “PART ONE” when subsequent films get released and it serves as a lengthy intro to this classic sci-fi universe resurrected for the modern big screen. The visuals and casting are the best of their kind in modern cinema, and it’s just a shame we end up with an awkwardly-paced film that never quite lives up to its potential. I’m on the fence when it comes to this one; perhaps if Villeneuve gets to finish his trilogy, it’ll be everything sci-fi fans want. Moderately recommended, but just understand you’ll be sitting through a very long film that’s only half the story.