The first edition of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel, Dune, is approximately 412 pages long; for comparison, Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring is 423 pages long. It would take the average reader, assuming they read one page a minute, nearly 7 hours to finish the book. When adapting such lengthy stories from page to screen, directors and screenwriters alike are faced with the difficult challenge of deciding what to leave in and what to cut out. No one is sitting through a 7-hour long film, and no theater chain would screen such a film (they could put on four showings of Venom: Let There Be Carnage within that duration).
In 1984, esteemed director David Lynch attempted to adapt Herbert’s novel into a movie with mixed success. Paul Attansio of the Washington Post remarked,Dune (1984) was “a movie of often staggering visual power…[but] also stupefyingly dull and disorderly.” Lynch “cluttered his story with taxonomic gibberish and a benchful of unnecessary characters.” Lynch chose a more faithful approach to adapting the material, prioritizing audience members familiar with the book, and overwhelmingly introducing those who are not. “In its fealty to those who have read the novel,” Attansio says, “Dune insulates itself against those who haven’t.” The film’s 137-minute runtime is simply not long enough for a faithful adaptation to comprehensibly work; the result, as Attansio’s review alludes to, is undercooked.
The element of simultaneously catering to both fans familiar with the written work and those who aren’t presents an interesting challenge when making a film like Dune. Herbert’s novel is host to a substantial amount of lore and detail, and with a limited amount of screen time, selecting the best tailored content to the story you’re telling becomes a necessity for the filmmakers. I have not personally read Dune. I went to a Tuesday night IMAX showing with a couple of friends who have. We collectively agreed Dune is a cinematically mesmerizing experience. From the mountainous rocks of the water planet Caladan to the sandy peaks of planet Arrakis, cinematographer Greg Fraser (Lion, 2016) has an eye for capturing these epic landscapes with picturesque wide shots. During interior scenes, he establishes moodiness through heavy use of shadows and dim lighting. Fraser’s color palette is less alluring than that of Deakins in Villeneuve’s previous project, Blade Runner 2049; the film transitions between dark blues and grays to dusty oranges frequently without fail. Nevertheless, Dune is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen all year.
With that in mind, Dune is to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It is a space opera of epic proportion in every sense of the word. No dollar of the film’s $165 million budget is wasted on bringing to life Herbert’s fantastical imagination of the future. But, while Villeneuve and Fraser provide more than enough eye candy, where Dune stalls is when instilling emotional depth. To avoid a similar fate to Lynch, Villeneuve has decided his adaption of Dune will be split in two parts. The initial two-and-a-half hours we’ve been granted are strictly exposition and rising action. We are educated about the story’s various creatures and historical context through video logs Chalamet’s Paul Atreides projects onto a wall; we actively learn alongside him. Zendaya (as Chani) also greets us with an opening narration, describing her people, the Fremen, and their oppression.
Despite his best efforts to get audiences up to speed in the most palatable way possible, Villeneuve’s patience is rewarded with didacticism. Dune is a film about spice politics and is a lecture on climate change; the stoic nature of Villeneuve’s directing does little to spice (pun intended) things up. I found more enjoyment in the loud explosions and sword fights that make up a limited percentage of the movie; the action sequences are riveting. The bildungsroman at the heart of the story, about the Atreides family and Paul’s growth into an all-powerful leader, is cold and brooding (save for a scene under a tent where Paul displays his frustration with his mother). Jason Momoa, who plays one of Paul’s mentors, Duncan Idaho, is the lone light at the party. His general charisma and occasional crack of a joke serve to make him a welcome standout among a star-studded cast.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a meditative slow burn, with the same epic capacity as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I have a soft spot for all things Timothée Chalamet, Denis Villenueve, and the sci-fi genre, so the movie was already of great interest to me. My high expectations were met, not exceeded. I believe the second chapter to Villeneuve’s vision will be even more of a spectacle and must-see than the first. I can’t wait for more sandworms.