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‘Dune’ Is Ambitious and Jaw-Dropping. And Then It Just … Ends.

Denis Villeneuve’s big-budget attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic has plenty of highs and some interesting lows, but as Zendaya’s character reminds us: this is just the beginning

Jonathan Bartlett

Dune officially hits theaters and HBO Max on Friday. Read our review of the film, originally published in September.

“This is just the beginning,” one character says two and a half hours into Dune, just a couple of minutes before the end credits. It’s a line that plays like a hard sell—or maybe a plea?—for a sequel that, technically, hasn’t even been green-lit yet. No matter what happens in No Time to Die, we know that James Bond Will Return. But what about Paul Atreides?

“I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book as one single movie,” Denis Villeneuve said in a recent Vanity Fair feature on the long-gestating creation of Dune. The sentiment dates back to 2018, when the filmmaker chose the project over helming the latest 007 entry, but a lot has gone down since then, including a very public dustup between Villeneuve and Warner Bros. over the studio’s decision to simultaneously release Dune on HBO Max. “Since the dawn of time,” Villeneuve mused in an angry open letter to Variety, “human beings have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences … no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says.”

It takes some hubris to actually use the phrase “since the dawn of time” in an op-ed, and also to position oneself as a guardian of cinema’s eternal flame. Like his fellow celluloid warrior Christopher Nolan, Villeneuve could be accused of having delusions of grandeur. But also like Nolan, he has a knack for putting that grandeur on screen (provided he’s well subsidized by Wall Street dilettantes) and has shown a willingness to bring his movies to the masses.

At this point, the healthy box office grosses of titles like Old and Shang-Chi suggest there’s still a multiplex choir to preach to, and Dune has enough stars (from Timothée Chalamet to Dave Bautista to Jason Momoa) and a big enough built-in fan base to at least make a dent in its expensive production cost. The fact that it’s also pretty good as a big-ticket spectacle also helps. Still, there’s something daring, and maybe even terrifying, about a $165 million potential sci-fi franchise tentpole that’s been shot in stand-alone style with narrative loose ends left so precipitously dangling at the end. Imagine if The Empire Strikes Back had been the first entry in the Star Wars series—and if there was no guarantee we’d get Return of the Jedi.

Figuring out how to best streamline and segment Frank Herbert’s multigenerational parable—a Cold War–era allegory about rival superpowers battling for control of valuable resources on a vast and barren desert planet—is an authentic challenge, both in terms of storytelling mechanics and the implicit risk of alienating superfans who know the book’s prose by heart. The two previous attempts to bring Dune to the big screen—one by Chilean mystic Alejandro Jodorowsky that was never completed, the other directed under duress by an unenthused and inexperienced David Lynch—were mostly undone by problems of adaptation. (There’s an entire, fascinating documentary about Jodorowsky’s Dune.) Rather than attempting to shoehorn in all of Herbert’s sprawling mythology, replete with familial lore and complex socioeconomic analysis, Villeneuve’s Dune takes a bit of time to set up the necessary palace intrigue and family dynamics before finding its shape as a relentless, propulsive chase movie. The target is Chalamet’s privileged princeling Paul Atreides, heir to the noble title and industrial empire of his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), who gets hunted across the wastelands of Arrakis by the relentless henchmen of a powerful rival aristocrat.

It’s a fine line between cliché and archetype, and a decade before George Lucas began raiding Joseph Campbell’s bibliography for Star Wars, Herbert drew inspiration from long-standing myths about young, upwardly mobile male heroism. Paul’s transformation from callow, coddled daddy’s boy to the “Mahdi”—a messianic savior figure destined to liberate Arrakis’s population from exploitation and tyranny—checks all kinds of familiar coming-of-age boxes. That’s the narrative that Lynch’s Dune, despite being beautifully produced and genuinely eccentric, couldn’t quite bring itself to fulfill.

But Lynch has never been a filmmaker to honor conventions, to put it mildly. When he makes a coming-of-age movie with his heart in it, it looks more like Blue Velvet, which also got a better performance out of Kyle MacLachlan. Villeneuve, who started his career with a series of self-consciously stylish French-Canadian films (including the mildly Lynchian Maelstrom) before graduating to Hollywood, is considerably more flexible. Or maybe the word is dutiful. Choose your metaphor, they all apply: If Villeneuve is a hired gun, he’s a crack shot; if he’s an artist, he’s one who colors inside the lines. If there’s a better-made mainstream thriller in the past 10 years than Sicario, I haven’t seen it, but Villeneuve’s immaculate craftsmanship sometimes happens in an intellectual vacuum. Sicario’s sociopolitical vision is as blinkered (and lazy) as its images of violence and desolation are lucid, while the breathably sleazy atmosphere of Prisoners couldn’t overcome the ludicrous convolutions of its screenplay.

Given his skill at conveying scale and elevated perspectives—think of the menacing skyline of the excellent, Toronto-set identity-crisis chiller Enemy, or the hovering UFOs of Arrival—Villeneuve was a good pick for the dystopian milieu of Blade Runner 2049. That film earned Roger Deakins a Best Cinematography Oscar for its richly textured tech-noir aesthetic, and on a level of pure technique, Dune is its predecessor’s equal, extending the spacious, blasted-out grandeur of Blade Runner’s Las Vegas sequences. Villeneuve’s Arrakis is blindingly beige, filling the widescreen with more sand per square inch than any movie since Lawrence of Arabia (a movie that Herbert counted among his influences). In lieu of Blade Runner’s incandescent, tech-heavy aesthetic—all crowded streets, beckoning 3D holograms and junky, branded electronic ephemera—Villeneuve and his cinematographer Greig Fraser produce something weirdly timeless, all long horizon lines and cavernous rooms bisected by massive, sculptural shafts of natural light. While the story is set several thousand years in the future, the architecture is retro-Brutalist, suggesting a civilization that’s transcended the need for flashy gadgets or mass media of any kind. Glimpsed at home in their massive palace compound, the Atreides occupy their own hushed, insular world.

If there’s a critique of extreme wealth and privilege encoded into Herbert’s series—a commentary on the comfortable numbness of the ruling class, and the kind of violent comeuppance that it takes to shake them out of it—Villeneuve and his collaborators aren’t terribly interested in developing it. The only shades of gray are in the cinematography. We know that Isaac’s Leto is a good father because he’s so dedicated to Paul, and that he’s a good rich guy because he’s handsome and circumspect and risks his life to save some rig workers from an attack by one of Arrakis’s ever-lurking, unfathomably gigantic sandworms. (These monsters are the signature creatures of the Dune-iverse, and realized here with a breathtaking mixture of editing and special effects that renders them as somehow both elusive and awe-inspiring; what I’m saying is that sandworm fans will not be disappointed.)

The question of whether it’s really ethical for the House Atreides to get rich off the export of the precious, life-extending spice indigenous to their new digs is settled indirectly by the fact that their competitor, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgaard), is a diabolical, genocidal monster. Meanwhile, the tension between the planet’s new white-skinned stewards and its racialized population of “Fremen”—Bedouin-style fighters who skitter on the margins of the action—is collapsed by the prophecy that wan, pale Paul will eventually become their leader.

The discourse around Herbert’s white-savior story line—and any evidence that Villeneuve is interested in tweaking it in either a more subversive or politically correct dimension—is going to mostly have to wait for Dune Part Deux. The relationship between the Atreides and the Fremen is largely limited to Paul’s swoony, come-hither psychic visions of the blue-eyed warrior Chani (Zendaya), who also serves as the story’s narrator (a switch from the novels, which were related by Princess Irulan). By focusing instead on the Fall of the House Atreides, though, Villeneuve unlocks the material’s action-movie potential. The extended mid-film set piece in which Harkonnen’s hordes launch a multipronged attack on Leto’s stronghold in the dead of night is steeped in the kind of queasy, slow-creeping dread that the director has made his trademark. Cutting in between intimate images of home invasion and apocalyptically scaled images of carnage—explosions shot to look like solar flares, fleets of drones flying in fascistic formation—Villeneuve provides the flip side to his skill set as a world builder. It’s hard to remember the last time CGI carnage felt this nightmarish.

It’s also hard to remember the last time a movie’s score felt so overbearing and bombastic. To paraphrase one of Herbert’s most famous lines, Hans Zimmer’s music is Dune’s true mind-killer. (Actually, I do remember the last time—it was Tenet; the Nolan-Villeneuve connection deepens.) Whether Villeneuve let Zimmer crank things up to this eardrum-splitting degree because he thought it was the best way to serve his thrilling images or because he didn’t quite trust them is up for debate. Either way, Dune’s lack of musical subtlety announces its creator’s barnstorming intentions.

What’s odd, then, is how vague and unformed Chalamet is in the lead. Charging any actor to carry such a massive movie on his shoulders is a big ask, and while gangly, moody adolescence is right in the actor’s wheelhouse, his performance feels limited. Instead of a Hero With a Thousand Faces, we get a guy who can really only conjure a petulant pout. It’s probably fairer to reserve judgment on Chalamet’s performance until the character’s arc is complete. The same goes for the movie as a whole, which makes the future of the franchise that much more loaded. But as things that are (hopefully) only just beginning go, Dune is off to a good start.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.