There are many terms that could be used to describe “Dune”: immersive, gorgeous, captivating, epic, a feast for the eyes and ears, a tale larger than itself. The term “space opera” has also been bandied about. And, in all honestly, the film is all that and more. There really is no succinct means to describe it—it’s much too grand for that. There is, however, one way to sum up this latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s massive 1965 science fiction novel that might just do it justice: “Dune” is an experience, and it’s one that nobody will soon forget.
The plot, which is praised as being true to its source material, follows young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and the crucial role he comes to play in a familial, political and personal drama that spans the universe itself. The main storyline (no spoilers!) follows a brief summary, told by Zendaya’s character Chani, of the atrocities committed against her people on the planet Arrakis, aka Dune. The planet has become indispensable and invaluable for its production of “spice,” a hallucinogen and energy source; however, Chani’s people, the native Fremen, are not.
Cut to the beginning of the story. We learn that Paul is the heir to House Atreides, one of the most prominent High Houses governing the known universe under a shadowy emperor. Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is a member of the enigmatic all-women religious sect known as the Bene Gesserit and is teaching Paul to use “Voice” (in short, mind control). It’s also learned that the emperor has seized the planet Arrakis from the beastly House Harkonnen and has “gifted” it to Paul’s father to rule, a political play meant to incite bad blood between the Houses. These three things—Paul’s powerful lineage, his lessons from his mother, and his family’s dangerous dealings with Arrakis—are introduced very quickly to set up the heart of the story: Paul has been placed on the road to becoming the “Kwisatz Haderach”—the “Messiah of Dune”—whether he rises to the challenge or not.
Just in terms of the plot itself, “Dune” provides fascinating mystery, intrigue, controversy and hints at an even larger world which the audience has not yet been made privy of. This is what causes “Dune” to be so captivating—the way the viewer can pride themselves on piecing cultures and politics and religious superstitions together while still feeling like they’ve barely broken the surface of what the fictional universe has to offer. It’s intriguing and engrossing. And, as this first installment runs over two-and-a-half hours and ends only about halfway through the story, it promises so much more to come.
There’s also the matter of the way the movie was directed, acted, filmed and scored. Denis Villeneuve, who is known for directing 2016’s “Arrival” and 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049,” was able to take Herbert’s almost untouchable novel and turn it into a riveting, palatable soon-to-be movie series. The cast, including big names such as Chalamet, Zendaya, Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa, worked wonders with their characters; Chalamet and Ferguson especially stood out in their scenes together, showing in the most minute glances, mannerisms and expressions their complicated mother-and-son, Bene Gesserit-and-Chosen One dynamic. The visuals are breathtaking, the shots looming but not afraid to capture the smallest of details. Hans Zimmer’s score soars and rumbles and chants and cuts straight into the listener’s chest, making every single moment feel momentous. The cinematography and composition together are, in a word, mesmerizing.
Even after a lot of thought, two in-theater viewings, and a bit of debate, there’s genuinely not much to say against the movie (other than that it ends). If there’s anything remotely negative to say, though, it’s that “Dune” asks something of its audience. It’s by no means a hard film to watch—Villeneuve makes sure to give viewers enough exposition and explanation to get by—but in order to fully enjoy the movie it must be experienced. For a story as epic, detailed, and grand as “Dune,” immersion plays a lot into how it’s received. A willing audience will glean the most from it—those who are willing to notice subtle shifts in the actors’ expressions, to parse through the shadows and whispers of Paul’s visions, to take in the landscapes and histories and, ultimately, to lose themselves in the vast universe Herbert has created. For those who can accept they won’t know or see everything but who are willing to take the time to learn, to see how the characters and their world are shaped by trials and peril and betrayals that cut as sharp as a coriolis sandstorm—to those, “Dune” will likely be remembered one of the greatest films in recent history.