“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
These words encompass boundless tales. Known by both lovers of science-fiction and those whose only experience with sci-fi is “that movie with the lightsabers,” they have gone down as some of the most famous words in literature. These words are known by everyone in my eleventh grade English class, as our teacher recited them before every exam. These are the words that permeate the wide world of "Dune," uttered as both a calming mantra and a prayer whenever the outlook is bleak. Yet they also bring power, a sense of fortitude that one can survive the coming storm. When Lady Jessica recited these words, the strength of director Denis Villenueve’s "Dune" was cemented.
The latest version of "Dune" was set up to be a perfect movie and a monumental cinematic event. It features an all-star cast that left people wondering who wasn’t in the movie: Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, and Zendaya. Hans Zimmer, a giant of music in film, composed the score. All of the best technical crews were brought on board and granted a sizable budget to create with. They also had formidable source material, with a massive world to play around in and recreate cinematically. Tying it all together was the direction of Denis Villenueve, who is known to have a deft hand in sci-fi filmmaking with his recent works, "Arrival" and "Blade Runner 2049", acclaimed by both audiences and critics. All the movie had to do was be great and live up to incredibly high expectations. Easy, right?
I am ecstatic to say that "Dune" delivers.
"Dune" follows the noble House Atreides as they get caught up in the scramble of politics and power plays and end up leaving their home planet of Caladan under the orders of the emperor. They must reestablish their fiefdom on the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. On this new planet they are forced to adapt to a world with almost no water, the elusive native people called the Fremen, and the lingering influence of the rival and vile House Harkonnen, who had ruled on Arrakis for years before the arrival of House Atreides. The planet is borderline inhospitable, but has one very valuable commodity in the form of spice— a drug only found on Arrakis which enables safe interstellar travel and is a principal source of power in this world.
This isn’t the first time someone has attempted to adapt "Dune" for the screen. Its cinematic history includes Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 10-hour long version starring Mick Jagger (that was thankfully never made) and David Lynch’s 1984 outing that is widely considered a disaster. This is the first iteration that feels worthy of the source material.
Based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Villenueve’s "Dune" tries to capture the essence and gravity that drew in so many readers in the first place and earned Herbert’s story the title of the best-selling sci-fi novel of all time. Much of that draw lies in the world-building, which is massive in scope and one of the most important aspects of "Dune". Fortunately, the film demonstrates complete technical mastery. The greatest thing that can be done with a fictional world is make it feel real, and that is what Villenueve has done with the world of "Dune". Every frame is beautiful and purposeful, and there are countless minuscule details to enjoy. The painstaking effort put into each moment is apparent for the entire two hour and thirty-five minute runtime. As a fan of the book, I appreciated the level of consideration seeing the ships, shields, and yes, the giant sand worms, come to life.
For those who are debating how they will watch and are able to go to the theater, I wholeheartedly endorse the theater experience. The visuals and the sounds are all-encompassing with feats I’ve never seen or heard before. I lost count of the amount of times I would just stare at the screen in awe of a particular frame, eyes widening and jaw literally dropping. I felt the drums and pulses in my chest as I watched House Atreides step onto a new world.
Hans Zimmer’s score also deserves recognition, and it is an integral part of the film. Even for someone with a resume as lengthy as Zimmer’s, "Dune" stands out as some of his best work. The score is ethereal and utterly unique. With this project, the composer said he “felt like there was a freedom to get away from a Western orchestra.” He was not kidding. The score features sounds that are completely unique, and the team went so far as to build new instruments to create the ultimate experience. The sounds of "Dune" are made of an eclectic mix of bamboo flutes, scraping metal, and a nearly deafening amount of bagpipes.
Another critical aspect of "Dune" is the characters, with the young heir and reluctant possible messiah Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, learning to adapt to a hostile environment while his mother’s training turns on him. There is also his father, the honorable Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) who is trying to maintain his house while traps close in around him. There is also a host of memorable side characters, such as war master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) who always has a poem at the ready, everyone’s favorite sword master Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), and the depraved and gluttonous Baron of House Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). In addition, Zendaya plays Chani, whose life is irrevocably intertwined with Paul’s. She didn’t have much screen time in this film, but left an impression nonetheless that leaves me ecstatic for her to take on a larger role in the second part.
While all the performances are superb, the characters are one of the only aspects where the movie falls somewhat short. They are, by nature, very difficult to adapt to the screen, as much of their conflict is internal, especially with Paul and his mother Lady Jessica, played by Rebecca Ferguson. Although both actors pull off their roles gracefully, there is a bit of disconnect between what we see and what we’re told. This issue is most apparent in Jessica’s character. She is a part of the Bene Gesserit, an all-female organization whose motivations are complicated, multifaceted, and often unknown to all but an individual sister. Jessica is no different, but on occasion the film falls into the trap of leaning into Jessica as a mother to Paul rather than a woman whose interests are specific to her character. In the novel, there is a lot of doubt as to where her loyalties lie that contributes to the significant events that take place, yet in the film that whole plot line is cut. She has always been a divisive character in the discourse of "Dune", but her inherent redeeming qualities aren’t as apparent in the film, nor is there some of the material that makes her so intriguing in the first place. However, there were points where Villenueve worked in room for Jessica to fulfill more of her potential in the second part, so maybe her character will be more fully developed once the tale is complete.
One of the biggest criticisms of the movie has been about the pacing, which is admittedly slow, but I don’t necessarily agree that it's a detriment. Stories can be slow and deliberate without being meandering. It may be long, but the runtime is necessary in order to tell the first half of what may soon prove to be an epic tale, with the second part having been confirmed just recently.
"Dune" has inevitably drawn comparisons to sci-fi and fantasy juggernauts like "Star Wars", "Game of Thrones", and "Lord of the Rings"—but "Dune" is its own beast. Such immense scope is something that is rarely achieved in modern cinema, so the only comparisons we can understand are other big successes. The content isn’t similar to the aforementioned giants, but the feeling may be the same—that of wonder, like you’re seeing something truly special. This might be the beginning of a new epic and future touchpoint of cinema, with the legacy being determined by the success of the second part.
Fans of the book and newcomers alike got the experience they were waiting for, and for those who have been waiting for the right movie to return to theaters, "Dune" certainly justifies the trip. Just prepare to leave the theater very dehydrated and in dire need of a bathroom, almost like you trekked through the desert while narrowly escaping giant sandworms yourself.
"Dune" is so many stories rolled into one massive mosaic. Survival, environmentalism, religion, leadership, colonialism, and indoctrination are just a few of the themes Villenueve explores, but the full narrative is still very much incomplete. The mark "Dune" leaves on a generation will be determined by which threads are picked up and followed to their end in part two. If done right, oh what a masterpiece it will be.